Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Brain Training

Have you noticed the number of commercials lately extolling the virtues of "neuroplasticity" and "brain training?"  They claim that by completing computer based tasks, you will increase your brain's health, make new neural connections and potentially stave off cognitive declines.  But do these services actually do what they claim?


When I tried digging into the question of what exactly is brain training and how does it work, I kept encountering the sites that are selling the software that is used.  In short, they have created a number of computer based games that they hope you find engaging even if they are asking you to complete a repetitive task.  Can you complete a maze or recall the direction something was pointing?  Can you figure out the shortest number of steps to get from point A to point B?  I won't link the sites here because I don't want to advertise directly for any one service.

The brain training services smack of pseudoscience and play on people's fears of dementia.  They've found a market and are doing a great job advertising their product to the masses.  There's money to be made in convincing people to pay for the games or computer based tasks.  But do they work?

Recent studies bring back mixed results on the effectiveness of brain training.  The ability to recall a visual image may be slightly improved while the ability to plan is not improved at all.  Participant scores on games did increase.  I had to chuckle when I read that one of the computerized games that was used was Pac Man and that over 14 weeks, participants increased their score in the game.  If I played Pac Man or any other game for 14 weeks, my score would improve too.  That's great but can skills at Pac Man generalize and be useful in other areas of life?  That's the rub.  Most recently, a study indicates that computerized brain games don't prevent cognitive declines or increase intelligence.

So why does this matter?  Well, one of the pieces of advice I routinely see on how to avoid Alzheimer's is to maintain an active brain.  Reading, crossword puzzles and other activities which require you to really think are given as example of maintaining brain activity.  While we're reading or taking a class to stay engaged, we need to also remember to sleep well, exercise well and keep up good nutrition while maintaining active social lives.  Each of those are actually critical to maintaining our cognitive abilities for as long as possible.

Should you sign up for brain training?  I'll leave that to you to decide.  If you enjoy it, go for it.  There seems to be no physical harm in participating.  Harm to your bank account may be a different issue.

Additional Information:
If Brain Training Won't Help the Elderly, What Will?  


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