Reader Theresa Cerulli just forwarded this Letter to the Editor that she had sent to the New York Times and went unpublished. The letter addresses the OpEd mentioned here (pitching physical vs. mental exercise), and refers to the Cogmed working memory training program, whose results have been studied in multiple papers published in top medical and scientific journals.
I applaud Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang for throwing some cold water on the current brain fitness craze in their recent New York Times Magazine Opinion Editorial “Exercise on the Brain.” They are correct in labeling the host of “mental fitness” products that target aging baby boomers as “inspired by science ” not to be confused with actually proven by science. For the last 30 years, terms like “brain plasticity” have been widely and casually used, creating hype that risks drowning out the real breakthroughs that brain researchers are making in this area.
However, I would like to distinguish the “mental fitness” trend that Aamodt and Wang rightly criticize from actual researched-based cognitive training such as the Cogmed program developed in Sweden. Unlike “mental fitness” programs, cognitive training programs focus very narrowly on specific cognitive functions that research has shown to be plastic. This is in stark contrast to compiling a smattering of exercises or activities that are generally thought to be good for the brain, but lack true scientific research and are ultimately ineffective. Cognitive training is not for everyone only those who experience deficits in specific cognitive functions that can be improved through persistent training. A qualified clinical professional can determine if and when cognitive training is the right form of intervention.
One specific type of cognitive training that has proven to be effective is the training of working memory the ability to hold information in mind for a few seconds. As Aamodt and Wang point out, working memory is a critical component of executive function, a collection of cognitive skills that together allow us to organize, manage and prioritize activities. Cogmed working memory training offers more than just improvements in the trained task. Other brain functions such as attention, reading, and problem solving skills also improve with working memory training. (Important research on the effectiveness of working memory training to improve attention and executive functioning was published in Aamondt’s Nature Neuroscience).
In my clinical practice, I have had the pleasure of observing the often dramatic impact of Cogmed’s working memory training program on the daily lives of many of my patients who struggle with debilitating attention problems. Working memory training is a research-based breakthrough for children and adults with attention deficits, as well as victims of stroke and traumatic brain injury. For clients with executive functioning challenges, Cogmed working memory training targets these very difficulties which medications so often fail to treat.
Baby boomers need to remain cautious when it comes to the fountain-of-youth promises of the brain fitness programs. The key lies in drawing a clear line between the “mental fitness” fad and proven cognitive training that has been validated repeatedly in the laboratory and in clinical practice.
Theresa Cerulli, M.D.
For more information on Cogmed working memory training: click here.
You can also read our interview with the leading neuroscientist behind Cogmed, Dr. Torkel Klingberg.
Our take: physical and mental exercise are complementary tools to improve our brain health and performance. Furthermore, stress management and a good nutrition are important factors to consider. None is a silver bullet, so efforts to pitch any of them vs. any of the other are not helpful. And some well-designed cognitive training programs have been shown to deserve their place in our toolkits.