Do Brain Workouts Work? Science Isn’t Sure

By  //  March 18, 2014


EDITOR’S NOTE: The brain fitness business comprised of popular online games that promise to increase attention span, enhance memory, and even stave off Alzheimer’s disease seems to be booming, and the federal government’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is even considering reimbursing the cost of “memory fitness activities” in some cases. 

This excerpted article from the New York Times blog, Wired Well, reports on the status of the latest brain-training game technology and its impact on intelligence and normal memory loss.

— Dr. Jim Palermo, Editor-In-Chief

he largest provider of brain games, the site works to train your brain in five categories: speed, memory, attention, flexibility and problem solving.
Brain games work to train your brain in categories such as speed, memory, attention, flexibility and problem solving.

NEW YORK TIMES/WIRED WELL—For a $14.95 monthly membership, the website Lumosity promises to “train” your brain with games designed to stave off mental decline. Users view a quick succession of bird images and numbers to test attention span, for instance, or match increasingly complex tile patterns to challenge memory.

While Lumosity is perhaps the best known of the brain-game websites, with 50 million subscribers in 180 countries, the cognitive training business is booming. Happy Neuron of Mountain View, Calif., promises “brain fitness for life.” Cogmed, owned by the British education company Pearson, says its training program will give students “improved attention and capacity for learning.” The Israeli firm Neuronix is developing a brain stimulation and cognitive training program that the company calls a “new hope for Alzheimer’s disease.”

And last month, in a move that could significantly improve the financial prospects for brain-game developers, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services began seeking comments on a proposal that would, in some cases, reimburse the cost of “memory fitness activities.”

Dr. Murali Doraiswamy

Much of the focus of the brain fitness business has been on helping children with attention-deficit problems, and on improving cognitive function and academic performance in healthy children and adults. An effective way to stave off memory loss or prevent Alzheimer’s — particularly if it were a simple website or video game — is the “holy grail” of neuroscience, said Dr. Murali Doraiswamy, director of the neurocognitive disorders program at Duke Institute for Brain Sciences.

The problem, Dr. Doraiswamy added, is that 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,” he said. “We need large national studies before you can conclude that it’s ready for prime time.”

For centuries, scientists believed that most brain development occurred in the first few years of life — that by adulthood the brain was largely immutable. But over the past two decades, studies on animals and humans have found that the brain continues to form new neural connections throughout life.

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