I recently did a post pointing to Patricia Marx's article on brain exercises meant to counter aging. The authors went through the training regime of Mike Merzenich's company "Posit Science." I just got the Kindle version of his new book (pub. date July 27, 2013) "Soft Wired - How the new science of brain plasticity can change your life." I got impatient with the excellent presentation of background material in parts I-III of the book that I am familiar with and noted that at the end of each chapter a URL pointed to a bibliography of original articles supporting its statements. On reaching part IV of the book, "The Brain in Retreat," after a brief scan of the text, I ditched reading the book and went straight to the richly annotated gold mine of references. Below, for example, are some slightly edited clips from the references for Chapter 19 "Losing Ground, Just By Having a Birthday! How, more exactly, do mental and physical performance abilities change as we grow older?"...probably more than you wanted to know about how our brains and bodies lose it with aging. I soon found that the references are a work in progress. Detailed literature citations disappear at chapter 22 then reappear with chapter 25, and then trying to pull up references for chapters 32-37 gets a "bad link" message. Both the book and the references detail hassles with getting patents on brain training exercises, forming first one, and then a second company. I would have been happy to be spared this information and would like to have seen some justification why patents and private profits were appropriate for research publicly funded by foundations and the government. I was frustrated by Part V, "Strengthening, correction, and rejuvenation through brain training" because it was mainly a string of homilies on good living, an advertisement for Posit Science, and an account of Merzenich's personal regimes. What about actually explaing a few of the exercises??? The references did give the meat of studies testing the efficacy of various attention, memory, and language exercises. I'm currently looking at some of the free exercises, and may get back to you if I decide to cough up the subscription fee for the whole set and really get into it. Here then are samples from the Merzenich Ch. 19 references:
-Several hundred studies have documented changes in processing speed associated with aging. There are many measured brain process “speeds;” they ALL slow down. See Salthouse TA (2000) Aging and measures of processing speed. Biol Psychol 45:35
-There is one interesting exception: The strength of fast inhibitory processes normally weaken, to the extent that the modulatory response characteristics of neurons in the cortex support faster successive-signal responding (because post-excitatory inhibition is weaker). This change confers no behavioral advantage because the responding in such an inhibition-impaired brain is so noisy that information that comes from signal processing with such degradation declines dramatically. See de Villers-Sidani et al (2010) Recovery of functional and structural age-related changes in the primary auditory cortex with operant training. PNAS 107:13900.
-The extensions of time required to identify successively presented inputs are, on the average, substantially longer in older populations…I identify the MIT professor Jim DiCarlo as making the most convincing arguments that the richer exploration of stimuli via repeated eye movements—more strongly expressed in young vs older individual—is a key to accurate recognition. For example, see DiCarlo JJ et al (2012) How does the brain solve visual object recognition? Neuron 73:415.
-We commonly record correlated changes in representational accuracy and speed in variously impaired (including aging) brains…The less accurate the brain’s neurological representation of what it sees or hears or feels, the longer it takes to “get the answer right,” i.e., to resolve what it is being seen or heard or felt.
-The degradation of our ability to suppress distractors of either external or internal origin with age has been repeatedly documented in behavioral and brain imaging studies; and the susceptibility to distractors has been shown to directly contribute to forgetfulness in older and otherwise-impaired individuals. See, as an introduction to this rapidly growing literature, Gazzaley A, D’Esposito M (2007) Top-down modulation and normal aging. Ann NY Acad Sci 1097:67.
-Many studies have shown that the strength of modulation of brain activity by attention is weaker in most neurologically and psychiatrically impaired populations. That modulation is largely controlled by the release of the neuromodulator acetylcholine. On the statistical average, acetylcholine-based modulation progressively weakens as the decades pass by. For an introduction to this literature, see, for example, Pekkonen E et al (2005) Cholinergic modulation of preattentive auditory processing in aging. Neuroimage 27:387The list goes on: references on contraction of useful field of vision, changes in driving abilities with aging, hearing loss, less vestibular control, less 'executive control'
-For documentation of the multifaceted decline into a more egocentric older life, see, for example, Orth U et al (2010) Tracking the trajectory of shame, guilt and pride across the life span. J Per Soc Psychol 99:1061; or McFarland C et al (1992) Biased recollections in older adults: The role of implicit theories of aging. J Pers Soc Psychol 62:837.