Brain Games Popular; Experts Remain Skeptical

"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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