Brain Games Popular; Experts Remain Skeptical

Max Goldberg recently tried to remember the name of a venture capital firm in California that was mentioned during a business meeting he had attended about a year ago.

There was no reason why Goldberg, 38, should have been able to remember the company. "I hadn't heard the name of the company or even thought about the company in over a year," he said.

But after only about 15 seconds of thinking, Goldberg had his "Aha!" moment: He remembered the company's name.

To most people, the idea of recalling an obscure company name that they hadn't thought of in more than a year seems nearly impossible -- especially for someone older than 30. But Goldberg says he has a secret tool that has aided his memory-recall abilities: He calls it "brain games."

For 10 minutes every morning for the past 40 days, Goldberg has been playing what is called "brain fitness games" on the Web site Lumosity.com. He says the small daily commitment to brain fitness has allowed him to improve vastly his day-to-day memory recall ability.

"I was having memory problems just like everyone else has at my age," Goldberg explained. "Using these games has given me a dramatic improvement in my memory. I'm able to recall names, places and companies that I couldn't remember in the past. And it surprises me I can remember these things and it's given me much greater confidence."

And, according to a recent Associated Press report on "brain fitness" games, Goldberg has plenty of company.

The brain fitness market has boomed in the past few years, growing in revenue by about $125 million between 2005 and 2007, according to a report released this year by SharpBrains, a research and advisory firm.

Web sites, books and computer and video games featuring brain fitness tools and games have spread like wildfire in recent years. Most of the products carry claims that using the brain fitness games can "improve memory and attention," or even "ward off Alzheimer's and dementia." But do they really work?

Most brain experts don't think so; they say there isn't much chance that any brain game or memory technique will people from developing Alzheimer's or dementia.

"For those who enjoy such games, fine," said Dr. Paul Aisen, director of the Memory Disorders Program at Georgetown University. "But there is no valid evidence that they preserve memory, and certainly no evidence that they ward off dementia."

Others have a much more negative view of such games. "This is a money-making scam, as far as I am concerned, when it comes to Alzheimer's and dementia," said Jo Ann O'Quinn, professor in the school of applied sciences at the University of Mississippi. "These are brain disorders that affect the most intelligent and mentally active people I have ever known, and I think it is an insult to many, to think that if they had done more brain exercises they might have been able to stave off the ravages of the disease."

Hard Evidence Lacking

There is no randomized, double-blind study to prove (or disprove) that these brain games can ward off cognitive decline, or even improve one's day-to-day ability to think and remember.

"When [customers] ask, 'Does it work?' what they really mean is 'Does this prevent Alzheimer's or delay the aging process?' and these are questions that no one can really answer yet," said Michael Scanlon, chief science officer of Lumos Labs, the company behind Lumosity.com. "We stay away from that because there's not sufficient evidence to say any game or brain training can prevent Alzheimer's."

So how can it be that brain game users such as Goldberg are reporting vastly improved memories? The answer to that question might not be a simple one, many experts say.

"The easiest way to explain it to lay people is to say something like: 'Just like a pianist needs to practice to remain a good performer, so does everyone else,'" said Dr. George Bartzokis, professor of neurology at UCLA. "The medical explanations are more complex."

But what experts do know is that the brain is malleable, and it can, in some ways, be trained to improve cognitive function and maybe even memory-recall. So some experts say that the brain games might actually improve one's memory.

"It is likely that brain exercises have some effect in the realm of annoying age-related changes in memory and concentration, but these are transient and do not generalize," said Dr. Myron Weiner, clinical professor of psychiatry and neurology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. "There is evidence that new brain cells continue to be born in the part of the brain most important in the encoding of memory. There is also evidence that synapses are strengthened with use, a phenomenon known as long-term potentiation."

Still, most experts say that learning a new skill or taking on a new hobby is probably more beneficial to improving memory and strengthening synapses than any brain game. The problem with brain games, experts say, is that once you learn how to solve a problem you are no longer doing any of the problem-solving type of thinking that can strengthen your brain's synapses.

"Probably the best exercise for the brain is to learn new things, [for example] learn a foreign language, learn to type or paint of sculpt, learn to use or program a computer, learn a musical instrument, and so on," said Dr. John Messmer, associate professor at Penn State's College of Medicine. "Rote memory tasks probably will not help much if you can't figure out how to solve a problem."

Some Users Loving the Games

But Goldberg said he tried that, and he didn't notice nearly as much of an improvement in his cognitive ability as he did after he started his brain training exercises on Lumosity.com.

"I speak a foreign language, Spanish, and I do crossword puzzles," Goldberg said. "But through speaking Spanish and doing the crossword puzzles, I never felt the improvement in my memory like I do with the brain games."

Lumosity.com's Scanlon said the experiences of brain gamers like Goldberg further support the notion that many of these games -- at least the ones that neurologists help develop -- do have some positive effect on cognition.

"Another question [about our brain games] is, 'Does it improve memory and cognitive abilities?' and that we can say with a lot more certainty that it does," Scanlon said.

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