03/19/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Brain Training: It Works...Kind Of

The IMPACT study which we reported on in December 2007, funded by Posit Science, conducted by the Mayo Clinic and USC Davis, has just announced publication at the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. (Reference: Smith et al. A Cognitive Training Program Designed Based on Principles of Brain Plasticity: Results from the Improvement in Memory with Plasticity-based Adaptive Cognitive Training Study. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, April 2009.) Computer Exercises Improve Memory And Attention, Study Suggests (Science Daily)

The Improvement in Memory with Plasticity-based Adaptive Cognitive Training (IMPACT) study was funded by the Posit Science Corporation, which owns the rights to the Brain Fitness Program, tested in the study.

Of the 487 healthy adults over the age of 65 who participated in a randomized controlled trial, half used the Brain Fitness Program for 40 hours over the course of eight weeks. The Brain Fitness Program consists of six audio exercises done on a computer, and is intended to "retrain the brain to discriminate fine distinctions in sound, and do it in a way that keeps the user engaged," Zelinski explained." The other half of participants spent an equal amount of time learning from educational DVDs followed by quizzes.

This is a very interesting study, in that it shows both that cognitive training works, and that it doesn't work.

What do I mean?

Well, it is time we move beyond this superficial discussion on it works/ it doesn't work, and we started discussing Work for Whom? Work for What? And, What Specific Program are we talking about?

1) It works: the intervention (computerized cognitive training) showed cognitive benefits beyond the control (educational DVDs followed by quizzes). This is significant both in that it shows that people over 65 can improve their mental abilities, and that can be done in scalable ways, thanks to emerging technology tools. Obviously more research needs to be done, but results like these would have been considered impossible not so long ago.

2) It doesn't work: those cognitive benefits were closely related to the trained auditory areas. The results don't support grandiose claims that the program "helps rejuvenate one's brain 10 years" or similar, which we hear all too often.

This is but one study in a rapidly growing area (this one is pretty large, and multi-site, and conducted by independent researchers). The key questions are becoming:

1) Who may benefit most from improving on specific cognitive domains- auditory processing in this case?

2) How can healthcare professionals support patients from a preventive and brain maintenance point of view. (Please note the study above had nothing to do with Alzheimer's Disease, but with the enhancement of cognitive functions.)

3) How can consumers navigate the growing number of products and claims?

For more on all this, you may enjoy reading these notes on Brain Training: No Magic Bullet, Yet Useful Tool. Interview with Elizabeth Zelinski, including:

The program we used, Brain Fitness 2.0, trains auditory processing. The people in the experimental group improved very significantly, which was not that surprising. What was very surprising was that there was also a clear benefit in auditory memory, which wasn't directly trained. In other words, people who were 75-years-old performed auditory memory tasks as well as average 65-year-olds, so we can say they reversed 10 years of aging for that cognitive ability.

In short, if you are considering buying some of these new programs, for yourself, your patients, a loved do need to do a bit of homework. Yes, it would be easier if there were more specific and categorical answers...but for the time being there aren't (apart from the general guidelines to stay active physically and mentally, manage stress levels, have a balanced nutrition). We published this 10-Question Program Evaluation Checklist to support your decision process.