Wednesday, December 27, 2006

A bull market in Brain Fitness and Calisthenics

I've been meaning for some time to do a post on the avalanche of interest in aging baby boomers not loosing their marbles any faster than absolutely necessary. An article on this topic by Pam Belluck in the 12/27/06 New York Times prompts me to go ahead. We are seeing a blooming of blogs and start up companies that focus on techniques for preserving memory and mental acuity (Posit Science, Third Age, Vigorous Mind, Rocky Mountain Learning, Sharp Brains, Happy Neuron, My Brain Trainer, to mention just a few). The Developing Intelligence blog has a post that discusses the Sharp Brains company, and the Sharp Brains Blog and the Brain Reserves Blog are among several that focus on brain fitness.

There are positive individual testimonials to the effectiveness of brain exercises, and a number of group studies are underway, but we are still absent any hard data that brain exercises bring a benefit that is distinguishable from general cardiovascular exercise. Belluck notes "human studies have generally relied on observations of people with healthier brains, but have not tested whether a particular behavior improves brain health. Perhaps people with healthier brains are more likely to do brain-stimulating activities, not the reverse." She also makes the point: "Certainly most brain-healthy recommendations are not considered bad for people. They do not have the potential risks of drugs or herbal supplements... The challenge we have is it’s going to be a lot like the anti-aging industry: how much science is there behind this?"


  1. Anonymous6:32 PM

    Hi Deric,

    1-I agree on the need for healthy skepticism, always.

    2-Cannot agree with "we are still absent any hard data that brain exercises bring a benefit that is distinguishable from general cardiovascular exercise" unless you heavily qualify that statement. There is plenty of hard data, both from clinical studies and direct clinical practice, that 1) targeted computer-based brain exercises do help in a variety of circumstances, from kids with working memory deficits or dyslexia, to seniors with early Alzheimer's, to stroke and TBI patients who undergo cognitive rehab, to military pilots who want to improve peripheral vision and attentional control, 2) in a way that general cardiovascular exercise cannot. Mental and physical exercise are complimentary. Not the same.

    3- there are 2 types of benefits of mental exercise a) short term cognitive enhancement-adults can train a number (not all) of cognitive skills, as measured by independent assessments, b) long term "prevention of problems". Here is where we run into problems. There are solid longitudinal studies that advocate for brain exercise that involves novelty, variety and constant challenge, and support the role it can play in delaying potential problems (the Cognitive Reserve theory), but this line of research typically does not focus on specific programs (which were not available 15-20 years ago), so no company, to the best of my knowledge, should claim there are clear and proven long term effects from any specific intervention-probably this is what referred to-, even if all evidence suggests that direction. However, a number of programs have shown short term, generalizable, cognitive enhancement, and can make solid claims.

    I don't go to the gym so I will avoid problems 40 years from now. I go there, and regularly, to feel better now. We will have better science in 40 years, but I for one enjoy doing things now.

    PS: if you shoot me an email I will send you the guide we just wrote, including references

  2. Thanks for your comments. Could you indicate your email address? I would like to get your guide (

  3. Alvaro has made a great point. Diet, exercise, and mental stimulation are all complimentary lifestyle choices that keep us in good mental and physical shape and certainly increase the probabilities substantially that we can maintain mental edge throughout our lives. There's no magic bullet or quick fix. The research is clear and there is a huge amount of data, ranging from large, longitudinal studies (Bronx Aging, Chicago Aging, Manhattan/Washington Hts. Aging Studies and others around the world)to very specific studies on particular topics that have been able to link lifestyle choices (specific diet, physical exercises, and types of mental stimulation) to the probabilities of continued brain fitness. And, of course, just last week the results of the ACTIVE study were published in JAMA, which showed short-term, long-term, and generalization to everyday activities of training on specific cognitive skills.

    Part of the issue is that the research is being done in quite disparate areas, ranging from neuroscience to neurology to psychology and aging and cognition. Many of these scientists/physicians are just beginning to speak to each other. No wonder the rest of us have a challenge putting it all together.

    I've seen this happen many times over the years, especially when I was CEO of Scientific Learning Corporation, a neuroscience technology company, which developed the Fast ForWord reading software programs,, and the foundation patents and programs for Posit Science. But what has happened recently is that demographically (Boomers reaching 60) we have such huge numbers of people asking the same questions and wanting answers (even if they're not perfect). That makes for more research, more discussion, and more cross-disciplinary interaction--all good things.

    I do disagree with Alvaro on one point. I believe we do have plenty of data on a broad range of specific mental activities that can help keep us sharp short-term and long-term. I'm older than he is so I think the 5-year timeline in the ACTIVE study is impressively longterm and certainly gives lots of clues for prevention of dementia and Alzheimer's. But of course, we all want more!

  4. Anonymous5:07 PM

    Hi Deric, you kick-started a good conversation :-)

    Sheryle, nice to see you around. I agree on the need for cross-discipline collaborations and better synthesis and dissemination of information in this new field (until not so long ago, in a galaxy not far far away, most scientists would have said that adult brains cannot generate new neurons, and even today many professionals and lay people believe that).

    Your experience with Scientific Learning and Dr. Merzenich must have been fascinating, really opening new ground out of the lab into improving the lives of thousand of kids.

    I disagree on 2 points: 1) I don't have hard data to support the claim that you are older than I am(:-)), 2) I personally prefer to exercise with programs that have proven short-term benefits and also fall under long-term guidelines, that programs who "simply" fall under long-term principles/ guidelines (even if the later may be more fun). I see this more as "fitness" than as "games". This is a new field, so the more approaches the better, and we certainly respect the work of the French neuroscientists you partner with, and your team.

    Happy holidays to both

  5. OK, Alvaro, you made me laugh! Thanks, Deric, for starting the discussion. And Happy New Year to you both.

  6. Anonymous5:19 PM

    I realize I am joining this discussion thread late, but I'd love to pick your brains.

    There appear to be a variety of different types of brain games/exercises/gymnastics programs that are available to seniors. Most of the most widely mentioned are grounded in strong science and are being empirically tested. However, as far as I can tell, just as many of the available programs are dangerously close to being psuedoscience and lack scientific rigor.

    Have there been efforts to compare the effectiveness, utility, and enjoyment of multiple brain programs in one (preferably longitudinal--long shot, I know!) study?

    Any reference suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

    While I'm too late to wish you all Happy New Years, Hope you had an enjoyable Memorial Day!