Brain games have become a multi-million dollar business, particularly for several online brain game sites. The largest, Lumosity, boosts fifty million users in one-hundred eighty countries. Cogmed, a British owned company, markets their brain games as a way to improve one's concentration and focus with an eye toward improving student performance. Neuronix, an Israeli company, is developing a cognitive training program that is aimed directly at people trying to stave off Alzheimer’s disease.
Is the marketing hype getting ahead of what's actually possible?
The human brain is a fascinating and complicated organ. Unlike other organs, it retains it's plasticity well into old age. This means the brain has the ability to remodel itself by rearranging and reconnecting nerve cell connections at any age. It's almost like a computer motherboard that can shift and form new pathways like those magical staircases in the Harry Potter movies. It's this plasticity that companies like Lumosity, Cogmed, and Neuronix are counting on. In theory, given the plasticity of the brain, it should work, but does it really?
Do brain games make you smarter?
And... there may be a more important question to consider:
Does the positive effects of brain games has a lasting effect? Can we exercise our brain for a period of time and then enjoyed extended benefits of that exercise for years to come?
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has funded the largest scale study that scientifically addresses these important questions in a carefully controlled and planned out experiment. The study involved 2,832 human volunteers, with an average age of seventy-four, studied over a ten year period. The volunteers were divided into four training groups:
1. Control Group (played no games but were tested)
2. Memory Exercises (played games)
3. Reasoning Exercises (played games)
4. Speed Of Processing Exercises (played games)
Over a five to six week period, the volunteers participated in ten sessions lasting an hour to an hour and fifteen minutes. At the end of the five to six week period, each of the experimental groups showed significant improvement in their category. They improved their memory, developed better reasoning, or got faster at processing information.
However, would the effect of these games have a lasting impression?
To answer this, over the next ten years, the participants were tested five more times in their respective categories. The results were rather amazing! After five years, all three experimental groups retained their improved ability in their respective categories. Further, after ten years, both the reasoning and speed of processing groups retained their improved ability.
Perhaps the most significant finding of the study was that both the reasoning group and the speed of processing group had fifty percent fewer automobile accidents than the control group! This demonstrates that the brain games transferred over into an tangible effect in real life, a very important one that can actually save lives in addition to bringing those people a higher quality of life in their senior years.
It is this type of positive result that has caught the attention of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. This federal agency is formally considering reimbursement for memory fitness activities for certain seniors, perhaps those at high risk of Alzheimer’s disease or perhaps those who have shown signs of senility documented by nursing home staff, hospital nurses and doctors, and/or documented by close family members and friends. It should be noted that all members of the public are allowed to submit their comments on whether or not they should implement this new policy so you can have your voice heard in this process.
Before you get too enthused about the benefit of brain games, you should also know there have been numerous smaller studies that did not have the same positive result. More importantly, most brain game studies have not been long term so there is really no way of knowing how effective those brain games were and and whether or not they had an impact in real life. In some of these studies, it has been suggested that a person might get better at a particular game but that this does not translate into helping them in real life. As Dr. Marina Gafanovich puts it, "They might get better at a memory game but still not be any better a figuring out where they put their eyeglass or car keys."
At this point, the jury is still out on whether or not brain games will help us long term and whether or not they will help us in real life. However, the largest study to date, which is also the longest study to date (ten years) does give us realistic hope that they can.