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Brain Training: It Works (to Improve Mental Skills) and It Doesn't (to reduce Brain Age)

A new study shows how brain training works - and doesn't work. It depends on what you define as "it works". So, if you are considering buying some of these new programs, you do need to do a bit of homework. Here you have a 10-Question Program Evaluation Checklist to support your decision process.

Copyright (c) 2009 SharpBrains

Researchers from the Mayo Clinic and USC Davis have just announced publication of their IMPACT study at the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. The press release announces:

- "Of the 487 healthy adults over the age of 65 who participated in a randomized controlled trial, half used the Brain Fitness Program for 40 hours over the course of eight weeks. The Brain Fitness Program consists of six audio exercises done on a computer, and is intended to "retrain the brain to discriminate fine distinctions in sound, and do it in a way that keeps the user engaged," Zelinski explained." The other half of participants spent an equal amount of time learning from educational DVDs followed by quizzes.

This is a very interesting study, in that it shows both that brain/ cognitive training works, and that it doesn't work.

What do I mean?

Well, it is time we move beyond this superficial discussion on it works/ it doesn't work, and we started discussing Work for Whom? Work for What?

1) It works: the intervention (computerized cognitive training) showed cognitive benefits beyond the control (educational DVDs followed by quizzes). This is significant both in that it shows that people over 65 can improve their mental abilities, and that can be done in scalable ways, thanks to emerging technology tools. Obviously more research needs to be done, but results like these would have been considered impossible not so long ago.

2) It doesn't work: those cognitive benefits were closely related to the trained auditory areas. The results don't support grandiose claims that the program "helps rejuvenate one's brain 10 years" or similar, which we hear all too often.

This is but one study in a rapidly growing area (this one is pretty large, and multi-site, and conducted by independent researchers). The key questions are becoming:

- 1) who may benefit most from improving on specific cognitive domains- auditory processing in this case?,

- 2) how can healthcare professionals support patients from a preventive and brain maintenance point of view (please note the study above had nothing to do with Alzheimer's Disease, but with the enhancement of cognitive functions)

- 3) how can consumers navigate the growing number of products and claims?

I interviewed USC Davis' Elizabeth Zelinski, one of the scientists involved in the study, and this is what she said:

- "The program we used, Brain Fitness 2.0, trains auditory processing. The people in the experimental group improved very significantly, which was not that surprising. What was very surprising was that there was also a clear benefit in auditory memory, which wasn't directly trained. In other words, people who were 75-years-old performed auditory memory tasks as well as average 65-year-olds, so we can say they reversed 10 years of aging for that cognitive ability."

In short, if you are considering buying some of these new programs, for yourself, your patients, a loved do need to do a bit of homework. Yes, it would be easier if there were more specific and categorical answers...but for the time being there aren't, apart from the general guidelines to stay active physically and mentally, manage stress levels, have a balanced nutrition.

So, ask yourself, what specific cognitive abilities would you like to work on and improve? what program offers credible evidence that it may help exercise and improve them? for what group of people (age, healthy or clinical problemsFree Web Content, ...) does the program seem like a better fit?

Article Tags: Brain Fitness

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Alvaro Fernandez is the CEO and Co-Founder of, a website that reviews resources for brain fitness such as the brain fitness gym mentioned by PBS. SharpBrains has been recognized by Scientific American Mind, Newsweek, The New York Times, and more. Alvaro holds MA in Education and MBA from Stanford University, and teaches The Science of Brain Health at UC-Berkeley Lifelong Learning Institute.

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