Hulking Hemispheres – Training the Brain

Your local Planet Fitness might rack up significantly more members if it advertised workouts that could be done in pajamas. After all, that strategy has worked brilliantly for the San Francisco–based Lumosity. Admittedly, the company’s focus isn’t exactly pumping iron: Lumosity bills its services as providing a fitness center for the brain, complete with daily exercises and a “personal trainer” algorithm that adjusts to meet each member’s goals.

Lumosity claims that training with its games can improve five core areas of cognition. Courtesy of Lumosity.

Over 50 million people currently train with Lumosity, paying up to $14.95 per month for the privilege of accessing the company’s array of brain games. Each activity claims to focus on one of five mental skills, including attention, flexibility and problem solving. In “Waiter,” for example, the player must recall the names and orders of a string of animated customers to earn larger tips. After playing a few rounds of the game, I found myself remembering that the man in the tacky tracksuit was named Charles, while the smartly dressed brunette was Elizabeth. But do these improvements carry over from earning virtual coin to navigating the real world?

According to a recent meta-analysis (a study of other studies) conducted by University of Oslo education researcher Monica Melby-Lervåg, winning “Waiter” may only make someone better at winning “Waiter.” Study participants who played working memory games did show short-term improvements in this skill, but their abilities to recall words and visuals returned nearly to baseline levels after the training regimen. Additionally, the games had no effect on other cognitive skills, such as basic math and focus. Studies of popular products such as “Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Training,” a game for the Nintendo DS handheld console, have also shown little evidence for “functional impacts.”

As might be expected, Lumosity’s in-house research team, the Human Cognition Project, has reported more positive results. In a 2011 study by Lumos Labs, adults who completed a daily 20 minutes of training for five weeks showed significant improvements in performance on working memory and visual attention tasks they had not previously faced. But some independent researchers have also found promise in the use of video games for enhancing mental fortitude. For example, a Nature paper by scientists at the University of California, San Francisco, determined that a game called “Neuroracer” could boost multitasking ability, as well as a suite of untargeted brain functions. Impressively, these effects were strong in players aged 60 to 85, a demographic that Lumosity had previously identified as benefiting comparatively little from brain training.

In the words of Dr. Murali Doraiswamy, director of the neurocognitive disorders program at the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, this kind of easy and effective intervention for older people represents a “holy grail” for neuroscientists. Mental diseases of the elderly such as Alzheimer’s have proven notoriously difficult to treat, and the prevalence of American patients with this condition is predicted to reach 13.8 million by 2050. Dr. Doraiswamy warns that the hype surrounding brain training products goes “beyond the data,” saying that the programs “need large national studies before you can conclude that [they’re] ready for prime time.” But although the scientific results to date have been mixed, the potential of games to improve the lives of the elderly (and beef up the brains of the rest of us) is certainly worth exploring.

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