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Description, highlights and validation of 21 brain training products

zThe first question to ask as a consumer or professional is, What are my goals or the goal of my client or loved-one? To help you choose products based on your answers to that question we have categorized brain training software based on their purpose: overall brain maintenance, targeted improvement in one specific cognitive domain, and stress management. Note that the products are simply listed by alphabetical order in each table – we have resisted the temptation to rank them because we would be mixing apples with oranges.

If you want to see the level of clinical validation of each product (as of March 2009), please subscribe to free monthly Brain Fitness eNewsletter or order the book The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness.

Top  overall brain maintenance products

The goal of these products is to provide whole brain stimulation. They include a variety of exercises targeting different types of cognitive abilities including memory, attention, language skills, visual skills and reasoning.

They represent an evolution of the classic paper-based options such as crosswords puzzles, word search and Sudoku. They may be more effective than their paper-based cousins for several reasons: (a) they present more novelty, (b) they are more varied, (c) they are usually more challenging and (d) they can be tailored to the user’s performance.

  • Brain Age:  The handheld devise provides good fun at low cost. It is a worthy product for anyone who is not spending hours in other type of videogames, and for whom the alternative would be doing more crossword puzzles or sudoku.  Nintendo is not conducting any research and does not claim any scientifically proven effects of using the game. Rather, the program announces to users that it was “inspired by” Dr. Kawashima’s publications.
  • BrainWare Safari:  This program is designed to train 41 cognitive skills among kids aged 6-12 in a multimedia gaming format. A small pilot study has shown promising results.
  • FitBrains.com: The games were designed with the input from neuropsychologist Dr. Paul Nussbaum. The subscription gives access to tools for continued motivation and engagement, such as competitions, collaborative games, and frequent feedback. This product may constitute a good alternative to mainstream casual games.
  • Happy-Neuron.com:  Scientific Brain Training (SBT)’s scientific advisory board is led by Dr. Bernard Croisile. SBT has agreements with AARP, Prevention.com and others to power their Brain Games section, so you can check them out there for free. In addition to the on-line games, several CD-Rom based games are offered.  This product includes the largest variety of games (35), including 5 ready for the Nintendo Wii.
  • Lumosity.com:  Lumos Labs’ scientific advisory board is composed by researchers at top universities.  Their website presents an engaging online experience. It may provide a good value-per-dollar for anyone with high-speed Internet access and a general “mental sharpening” goal. The only clinical validation consists in a small, unpublished trial that was presented at the Society for Neuroscience Conference in 2006. The company is currently focusing its research on the effect on cognitive rehabilitation following chemotherapy.
  • MindFit:  This is the only software with an embedded stand-alone and comprehensive assessment of 14 different cognitive skills, used to tailor the program to the user’s needs. Clinical validation is ongoing: several studies have been conducted but none have been published so far. One study was presented at a 2007 Alzheimer’s Conference in Salzburg, Austria.  This product was endorsed by Dr. Susan Greenfield, Director of the Royal Institution in the UK, and is the co-winner of the 2007 American Society on Aging’s Business and Aging Award.
  • (m)Power:  Dakim’s scientific advisory board is led by Dr. Gary Small.  This product is specially designed for retirement communities and people not familiarized with computers. It includes a touch-screen system and the content is fun.

Top targeted brain workout products

In contrast to whole brain stimulation products, these products focus their efforts on specific cognitive domain such as auditory processing, working memory or visual processing. The goal of all the exercises in each product is to boost performance in the cognitive abilities that are targeted by the product, and closely related ones.

  • Brain Fitness Classic by Posit Science:  This product is best for adults over 60 who feel it takes them longer to follow conversations, especially in noisy environments. It is available both for PC and Mac. It is very demanding. Posit Science’s scientific advisory board is led by Dr. Michael Merzenich. In 2006, Dr. Merzenich and colleagues published a randomized controlled trial using the classic program in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Further research is under way with the IMPACT study: the initial (yet unpublished) results are promising. Multiple unpublished studies are looking at a variety of applications, from healthy aging to neurological side effects of chemotherapy, Mild Cognitive Impairment, HIV-related, schizophrenia. The classic Posit Science program is the co-winner of the 2007 American Society on Aging’s Business and Aging Award. It is featured on PBS specials on Brain Fitness & Neuroplasticity and in several recent books.
  • Cogmed Working Memory Training:  This product is typically used in clinical settings to help people with attention deficits or individuals undergoing neuropsychological rehabilitation. However, it has not been yet cleared by FDA for any therapeutic application. Cogmed was founded by Dr. Torkel Klingberg. There are several clinical trials under way by independent researchers. Dr. Klingberg published a randomized controlled trial with children with attention deficits in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (2005), and several related studies in a variety of respected journals.
  • DriveFit (Golden DriveFit): This product is best for older adults who want to improve driving-related cognitive skills,Clinical validation is low. Nonetheless, with the British School of Motoring, DriveFit won the prestigious Prince Michael Road Safety Award for a similar product focused on teenagers.
  • Earobics: This product is best to help students in pre-K through third grade develop early literacy skills. The What Works Clearinghouse, maintained by the US Department of Education, considers the extent of evidence for Earobics to be small for both alphabetics and fluency.
  • FastForword:  Fast Forword has been shown to be an effective intervention for dyslexic students who struggle with the specific cognitive skills that the program trains (auditory and phonological skills). According to the What Works Clearinghouse database, maintained by the Department of Education, the fit may be less clear for students who are not dyslexic.  The software is very demanding and usually requires parents’ or school supervision for compliance.
  • InSight:  This product is best for adults over 50 who notice loss of concentration and attention abilities while doing complex tasks, such as driving.  One of the five exercises included in the program, the UFOV (Useful Field of View) exercise, is based on many previous scientific studies (See interview with Dr. Elizabeth Zelinski in Chapter 2). The other four exercises have not been tested before.
  • IntelliGym:  This product is best for committed players and teams. It should be considered as a serious workout, not a game.  Dr. Daniel Gopher acts as an advisor to Applied Cognitive Engineering. IntelliGym is used by prestigious NCAA basketball teams, such as Kentucky, Memphis, Florida, Kansas.
  • Vision Restoration Therapy:  This product obtained 510(k) clearance FDA clearance in April 2003 for patients recovering from stroke or traumatic brain injury. It constitutes a very expensive intervention. Clinical validation is based on two published controlled trials.

Top stress management products

These products are based on biofeedback. As a consequence, they include sensors that measure skin conductivity and/ or heart rate variability, which are associated with physiological stress.

  • emWave:  The PC Stress Relief (software program and biofeedback sensors) can be used both by individuals and by professionals (like psychologists or educators) who can use the program with multiple users. The product has a New Age feel that can sometimes gets in the way. The Personal Stress Reliever (handheld device) is easy-to-use on the go. It is currently popular with nurses and golf players.
  • Journey Wild Divine: This product is best for people looking to learn and explore in a gaming environment. It combines fun with benefits and presents a New Age look-and-feel. It can be considered more as a game than a training product.
  • RESPeRATE:  This product is a portable medical device that has been shown to help lower blood pressure. Recommended use is 15 minutes a day, several times a week.
  • StressEraser:  This product is a no-frills biofeedback device, popular with busy professionals and executives. It has limited published clinical evidence, but a high-quality Scientific Advisory Board.

If you want to see the level of clinical validation of each product (as of March 2009), please subscribe to free monthly Brain Fitness eNewsletter or order the book The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness.

This new online resource is based on the content from the book The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness (May 2009, $19.95), by Alvaro Fernandez and Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg.

Keep learning by reading more articles in the Resources section.

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