The New Brain Game – Good science or wishful thinking?

person using a technology deviceLast month’s poll: Do you think some of the new high-tech tools can help boost brain power?

87% of you thought YES.

Brainpower boosters. Memory masters. Vendors are pushing puzzles and selling video games as a sure-fire means of sharpening the mind or even preventing disease. Do these systems deliver on their promises or are they 21st century snake oil?

Baycrest researchers respond with mild scepticism. “People are looking for quick fixes,” says Dr. Gordon Winocur, a senior scientist at The Rotman Research Institute. He doesn’t believe people can get any more cognitive growth from most of these games than they can from staying active as part of their natural way of life.

To help consumers decipher scientific- sounding claims, Dr. Don Stuss, vice-president of research at Baycrest and the Reva James Leeds Chair in Neuroscience and Research Leadership, says to ask the right questions: “Are these games based on the best knowledge of brain functions, to maximize and train these functions? Have the products been scientifically validated?” Dr. Stuss is concerned that people will buy unhelpful products and become frustrated when they don’t work.

Thus, consumers may need to do a little homework, looking at whether any studies have been published in peer-reviewed journals with experimental control groups, adequate sample sizes, and different populations. Even if they report statistically significant improvement, there’s still a question of whether the results on a single laboratory task under controlled conditions can generalize to real-world behaviour.

The facts are that current findings undercut many claims. Dr. Deirdre Dawson, an occupational therapist and scientist at Baycrest, notes, “There’s not a lot of evidence to suggest that practicing a hard task over and over will improve your overall memory.”

Dr. Winocur elaborates on this point. “There’s probably not too much you can do in terms of enhancing memory capacity. You can’t make the hippocampus, a brain structure that is very important for memory, better or stronger,” he explains. “But you can make better use of what you have.”

Dr. Winocur cites lab evidence that shows the mental performance of animals given lots of toys and running wheels “shot right up.” In fact, bland and boring environments lowered their scores. Thus, evidence suggests that an enriched, stimulating environment will support optimal cognitive function.

For humans, that means keeping active. “It’s really important to stay engaged and active. Crossword puzzles and Suduko are probably good for cerebral blood flow,” Dr. Winocur speculates, “but there’s no substitute for physical stimulation and social interaction.”

Diet also plays an important role in keeping the brain healthy. According to Dr. Winnocur, “Older people are notoriously neglectful of their diets for a variety of reasons. They may eat processed foods because they’re cheaper or easier to prepare, but they’re often high in fat, for example, and older people are much more vulnerable if their diet isn’t nutritionally sound. A lot of research shows high-fat diets can seriously affect mental function.”

Dr. Winocur and his colleagues at the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest are developing a program to help older people perform better mentally. The program involves memory skills training, practical task planning and training to enhance psychological well-being. So far, participants showed significant improvement in memory, planning and well-being at the end of the program as well as six months later. The team hopes that this program will be available in community clinics in a few years.

As for mental challenges, he counsels, “Do anything intellectually stimulating that gives you pleasure. If you have the capacity and stamina, do as much as you can. It doesn’t have to be as challenging as Suduko, though. Choose activities that interest you the most.” But remember that brain fitness involves more than just playing the latest games.

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