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Do Brain Games Build Cognitive Muscle?

By Tori Rodriguez and Kathleen Smith

Having trouble remembering to feed the dog, recall where you left your appointment book, or conjure up the name of the fourth Beatle on trivia night? And what about your clients? Are they suffering from cognitive impairment or decline? The solution may lie with a concept that’s garnered increased attention—and skepticism—in recent years: computerized brain games.

The idea that these games could play a role in preserving and enhancing cognitive function is being backed by advances in the study of neuroplasticity, overturning the notion that human brainpower is set on an inevitable, irreversible course of progressive decline. Indeed, many studies show that computerized brain training designed to sharpen the mind can yield benefits that range from strengthening memory to boosting intelligence and reasoning skills. But, of course, the rapid ascension of these games—made possible by the ubiquity of portable electronic devices such as mobile phones—has also raised questions about how fully they live up to their claims.

Enter Dan Hurley, a science journalist and author of the recently published book Smarter: The New Science of Building Brain Power. After interviewing several hundred researchers and study participants and reviewing countless peer-reviewed trials published on the subject, Hurley reached a conclusion: “It is absolutely possible to move the needle on improving various kinds of cognitive abilities,” he says. Although four of the studies he reviewed revealed no cognitive improvement stemming from brain games, 75 of them pointed to numerous beneficial results, suggesting that brain training can improve “real-world abilities of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, older adults with mild cognitive impairment, people recovering from chemotherapy or radiation for cancer, people with Down syndrome, victims of traumatic brain injury, and otherwise healthy adults and children.”

Hurley says that even the field’s most skeptical researchers now agree that working memory and attention can be strengthened. And those benefits extend far beyond helping high-functioning people remember where they put their keys. Hurley adds that disorders such as depression and schizophrenia are often accompanied by seriously diminished working memory. “In fact,” he says, “one of the strongest predictors of long-term outcomes for people with major depression and schizophrenia is their level of working memory—after all, someone who cannot ‘think straight’ and make sense of life’s daily challenges is going to have a very hard time handling daily activities.”

But for all the touted successes of computerized brain games, most of those with credible backing aren’t commercially available. Some reputable programs, like the Cogmed Working Memory Training program created by neuroscientist Torkel Klingberg, are only available in schools and healthcare settings. Programs like Klingberg’s are also run by professional coaches, meaning that popular memory games on mobile apps or the Internet might only go so far.

In the search for a universally accessible method of improving cognitive abilities for people of all ages, one option stands above the rest: physical exercise. Considerable research supports the relationship between exercise and improved cognitive function. There are also parallels in the processes of bolstering mental and physical fitness. Not unlike building muscle by gradually increasing the weight on a barbell, improving mental fitness relies on progressive training in making exercises increasingly difficult. “The consistent link between all methods showing benefits is that the training must be progressive,” says Hurley. “It must get harder as you get better.”

Games like chess or bridge, which rely heavily on working memory and become progressively harder, are just a few avenues for improving cognitive function. There’s also a great deal of evidence supporting the cognitive benefits of learning to play a musical instrument or performing mindfulness meditation, says Hurley. And unlike online brain games, these exercises stand the test of time. In fact, a study published in the January 2014 issue of Brain Structure & Function showed that as musical expertise increased, so did the density of gray matter in areas of the brain involved in higher-order cognitive processing. Also, a Harvard study published in 2011 showed that mindfulness meditation increased gray matter in parts of the brain that govern learning, memory processes, and emotion regulation.

The takeaway from these findings supporting brain games? Computerized brain training is yet another tool in your arsenal to boost memory, intelligence, and reasoning skills. At the very least, maybe a couple of brain games means the difference between remembering to pick up milk at the store and having dry cereal the next morning.

— Tori Rodriguez

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1 Comment

  • Comment Link Saturday, 24 May 2014 19:54 posted by Paul Velen

    I facilitate a support group in residence for seniors and disabled adults in a supported housing facility in Riverside, CA;. I suspect this article will be of interest to group participants. It speaks to members' concerns and gives doable recommendations for reparative action.

    Thank you so much.

    Paul Velen, MS, LMFT