On the website for Lumosity, there is a promise to “train” your brain with games designed to fend off mental decline. Users can view images of numbers and birds to assess attention span, or match tile patterns to test memory.
And, while Lumosity may be the most well-known brain-game website, there are many more popping up. Happy Neuro of Mountain View California pledges “brain fitness for life,” and Cogmed, owned by the British education company Pearson says it’s training program will give people “improved attention and capacity for learning.”
A lot of the focus of the brain fitness business has been on helping kids with attention-deficit problems, and on helping to improve academic performance in kids and adults.
Dr. Murali Doraiswamy, director of the neurocognitive disorders program at Duke Institute for Brain Sciences says the science of cognitive training has not kept up with the hype. “Almost all the marketing claims made by all the companies go beyond the data. We need large national studies before you can conclude that it’s ready for prime time,” he says.
While research over the past few decades on animals and humans have found that the brain continues to form new neural connections throughout life, questions remain whether an activity like solving a puzzle or learning a new language, or improving skill on a video game can really raise intelligence or avert memory loss.
In January, the largest controlled trial of cognitive training in healthy older adults found that gains in reasoning and speed through brain training lasted as long as 10 years. Financed by the National Institutes of Health, the Active study recruited over 2800 volunteers with an average age of 74.
Still, experts say that while there is no real risk to participating in brain-training games available online and through smart phones, they say consumers should know that the “scientific jury” is still out on whether they are boosting brain health, or just getting better at a game.
“I’m not convinced there is a huge difference between buying a $300 subscription to a gaming company versus you yourself doing challenging things on your own, like attending a lecture or learning an instrument,” says Dr. Doraiswamy. “Each person has to personalize for themselves what they find fun and challenging and what they can stick with.” nytimes.com 4/8/14