An emerging trend in brain fitness puts science in your Xbox.

Illustration by Oliver Hydes

The Baby Boom generation is turning 60. This means that more than 75 million Americans are approaching the age at which cognitive decline typically begins. Right on cue, a bevy of electronic games, from the Happy Neuron Game to the Vigorous Mind series, is hitting stores. All of them promise one thing: to save your brain.

It’s a trend that began in Japan. In the summer of 2005, Nintendo introduced Japanese consumers to its Brain Age software for its handheld gaming system. Since then, it has sold more than four million copies worldwide. The conceit of the game is simple, if woefully unscientific: After assessing your initial “brain age” with a brief series of mental tasks, the program runs you through a gauntlet of basic exercises like reading comprehension and sudoku before measuring you again. I was happy to see that my improvement was nothing short of miraculous: After less than an hour with Nintendo’s Brain Age, my own brain age had decreased by 20 years, from 65 to 45. Of course, when the science is pretend, great results are easy to come by.

Although Nintendo employs Ryuta Kawashima, a famous Japanese neuroscientist, to sell Brain Age, the company carefully avoids making any specific scientific claims. “We’re in the entertainment business,” says Perrin Kaplan, head of marketing for Nintendo’s U.S. operations. But the company coats Brain Age in a veneer of neuroscience. Potential customers find colorful fMRI images and admonishments to “get the most out of your prefrontal cortex” on the game’s promotional Web site. This entertainment is masquerading as neurology.

At the other end of the neural training spectrum is PositScience, which partners with a leading Medicare insurer and sells its individual Brain Fitness Program for a sobering $395. PositScience boasts an impeccable scientific pedigree: Developed by Michael Merzenich, a neuroscientist at the University of California at San Francisco, its training program reflects two decades of experiments into the nature of neuroplasticity, and it has undergone rigorous experimental testing. “Unlike all the other products out there that are just silly games,” Merzenich says, “Posit is real science.”

In a recent PNAS paper, Merzenich’s lab announced that PositScience was able to reverse “age-related cognitive decline” in a randomized and controlled study of 182 subjects. Of those trained with PositScience, 93 percent showed significant cognitive improvement. “We’ve demonstrated that you can take the brain of a 75-year-old,” Merzenich says, “and make it function like the brain of a 35- or 40-year-old. It takes training, and some hard work, but it’s possible.” Preliminary results of a second trial study suggest that PositScience can even help stave off memory loss in the early stages of Alzheimer’s patients. After just four weeks, senile patients showed significant cognitive improvement. The control group, on the other hand, continued to decline.

While the PositScience exercises aren’t as fun as Nintendo’s—and Nintendo’s aren’t that fun to begin with—they certainly felt more rigorous and challenging. After 20 minutes, my 25-year-old brain was ready for a nap.

Merzenich has big plans for PositScience. He wants to launch programs that target the visual cortex, working memory, and executive control. With those goals in mind, he has partnered with the Mayo Clinic to conduct an expansive trial study. Moreover, Merzenich has begun studying the positive effects of PositScience on schizophrenic patients. The results so far have been “extremely encouraging”: “If we got these same improvements with a pill,” Merzenich says, “we’d be counting the money already. We’d have billions in sales. But this isn’t a pill—it’s much better than that.”

Only time will tell if Merzenich’s optimism is justified, and brain-fitness programs become a conventional medical treatment. “Consumers are programmed to trust drugs,” he says. “Exercise seems frivolous.” But if Merzenich is right, then we’ve been all wrong: The best way to keep a youthful mind may be to keep on playing games.

Originally published March 29, 2007

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