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Brain Training: No Magic Bullet, Yet Useful Tool. Interview with Elizabeth Zelinski

Sharon Begley, Newsweek’s science reporter, recently wrote that

– “With the nation’s 78 million baby boomers approaching the age of those dreaded ‘“where did I leave my keys?” moments, it’s no wonder the market for computer-based brain training has shot up from essentially zero in 2005 to $80 million this year, according to the consulting firm SharpBrains.

– “Now comes the largest and most rigorous study of a commercially-available training program, and it shows that there is hope for aging brains. This morning, at the meeting of the Gerontological Society of America, scientists are presenting data showing that after eight weeks of daily one-hour sessions with Brain Fitness 2.0 from Posit Science, elderly volunteers got measurably better in their brain’s speed and accuracy of processElizabeth Zelinski IMPACTing.

We recently had the chance to interview Dr. Elizabeth Zelinski of the University of Southern California Andrus Gerontology Center, who led the IMPACT (Improvement in Memory with Plasticity-based Adaptive Cognitive Training) Study Sharon Begley refers to in the quote above.

First, some context on this study, which is by far the largest high-quality study of its kind. The study was prospective, randomized, controlled, and used a double blind trial. 524 healthy adults 65-year-old and over were divided into two groups. One received an hour a day of training for eight to ten weeks, and the other spent the same amount of time watching educational DVDs. The IMPACT study, funded by Posit Science corporation, was performed in multiple locations, including the Mayo Clinic, USCF, and San Francisco Veteran Affairs Medical Center.

The discussion centers at his point on the initial results that were presented Gerontological Society of America (the study hasn’t been published yet).

Alvaro Fernandez: Dr. Zelinski. Thank you for being with us. Could you start by setting the context and providing an overview of how human cognitive abilities typically evolve as we age based on insights from your Long Beach Longitudinal Study?

Elizabeth Zelinski: Of course. The first concept to understand is that different cognitive skills evolve over the lifespan in different ways. Some that rely on experience, such as vocabulary, actually improve as we age. Some tend to decline gradually, starting in our late 20s. This happens, for example, with processing speed (how long it takes us to process and respond to information), memory, and reasoning. We could summarize this phenomenon by saying that as we age we get better at dealing with the familiar, but worse at dealing with the new. We can always learn, but at a slower pace.

Are there any specific tipping or inflection points in this trend, any age when the rate of decline is more pronounced?

We don’t have a clear answer to that. It depends a lot on the individual. In general it is a gradual, cumulative process, so that by age 70 we statistically see clear age declines. Which, for example, is a strong factor determining why older adults struggle to adapt to new technologies, but why trying to learn them provides needed mental stimulation. Now we know that genes only account for a portion of this decline. Much of it depends on our environment, lifestyle and actions.

Can you summarize what a healthy individual can do to slow down this process of decline, and help stay healthy and productive as long as possible?

One general recommendation is to do everything we can to prevent or delay disease processes, such as diabetes or high-blood pressure, that have a negative effect on our brains. For example, it is a tragedy in our society that we usually reduce our levels of physical exercise drastically after we leave school.

Let me then ask: what are the relative virtues of physical vs. mental exercise?

Great question! That in fact leads into my second recommendation. Aerobic exercise has been shown to be a great contributor to overall cognitive health. But it has not shown any significant effect on improved memory. This is an important point to remember: there have been dozens of studies on the impact of physical exercise on cognition and they have found many impacts, but none in the area of memory. In contrast, directed cognitive training, or “mental exercise”, has been shown to improve specific cognitive abilities, including memory.

Now, there is no magic bullet: both are important components. And I would add a third element: it is also important to maintain emotional connections. Not only with ourselves, to have self-confidence and self-esteem, but with our family our friends.

Let’s talk now about the IMPACT study initial results. What results surprised you the most?

Probably the most surprising outcome was a clear transfer of the training, which is critical so that the cognitive improvements have an impact on everyday life. The program we used, Brain Fitness 2.0, trains auditory processing. The people in the experimental group improved very significantly, which was not that surprising. What was very surprising was that there was also a clear benefit in auditory memory, which wasn’t directly trained. In other words, people who were 75-years-old performed auditory memory tasks as well as average 65-year-olds, so we can say they reversed 10 years of aging for that cognitive ability.

Another area where people in the experimental group showed significant improvement was in self-reported perception of their abilities in a variety of daily life tasks, such as remembering names and phone numbers, where they had left their keys, as well as communication abilities and feelings of self-confidence.

Those results, even if initial, are impressive and have very significant implications. Let’s now speculate a bit about the future. We have said that different cognitive abilities evolve in different ways, and we have talked about just a few of them. We have discussed how physical exercise can be useful. And how directed cognitive training may help improve specific cognitive skills, like the Brain Fitness 2.0 program developed by Dr. Michael Merzenich. Other examples include working memory training, shown by Dr. Torkel Klingberg, and attentional control, by Dr. Daniel Gopher. In the future, will we have access to better assessments and tools to identify and train the cognitive abilities we need to work on the most, in the same way that we can go to a gym today and find the combination of machines that provide the most effective personalized workout?

The physical fitness analogy is a good one, in that cognitive enhancement requires the engagement in a variety of activities, those activities must be novel, adaptive and challenging-which is why computer-based programs can be helpful. But even at a more basic level, what matters is being engaged with life, continually exposed to stimulating activities, always trying to get out of our comfort zones, doing our best at whatever we are doing. A major typical misconception is that there is only one general intelligence to care about. In reality, we have many different cognitive abilities, such as attention, memory, language, reasoning, and more, so it makes sense to have different programs designed to train and improve each of them. Before embarking on this study I was skeptic about what we would find. Now I believe cognitive training is a very promising area that deserves more scientific and policy attention.

Dr. Zelinski, thank you for your time. When do you expect your paper will be published, so we can analyze it in more detail?

You are welcome. I think the paper will be submitted for publication in the next couple of months.  We won’t know where until it’s been peer reviewed and accepted. Will let you know as soon as I do.


More reading

– see Poster results presented at GSA

– read more interviews in our Neuroscience and Psychology Interview Series

Brain Fitness: November Monthly Digest: a collection of articles and links including news, resources, brain teasers, and more.

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17 Responses

  1. Deb says:

    Fantastic post!

  2. Michael says:

    Great interview! It is clear over the next few years, we will see more research that supports brain fitness. A mult-tiered strategy is key to healty brain!

  3. Alvaro says:

    Thank you, Deb and Michael, glad you enjoyed it.

  4. Ben Fisher says:

    very interesting thoughts on physical vs. mental exercise

  5. Helene Zemel says:

    Interesting interview. The latest cognitive studies have been a boon to my piano teaching. Many adults age 50 + want to take up piano lessons for the cognitive stimulation. Our local community college offers free classes to adults age 60 +.

  6. Alvaro says:

    Helene, you will enjoy this interview with our co-founder, when he says that “It is never too late to learn something new. We may not be able to become Mozart if we start playing the piano in our 60s…but who cares. What matters is the mental exercise and challenge of learning something new, what matters is the process, itself, not the resulting product.”

    Happy Holidays!

  7. josie osborne says:

    I am interested in a program that is taylor-made for me…what can you suggest?

  8. Alvaro says:

    Hello Josie, no program today is as sophisticated as to assess all your cognitive abilities, identify bottlenecks and propose adequate personalized training. We are starting to work with some companies precisely to develop a system that can do that.

    MindFit may come closest since it trains a variety of skills. The WSJ did a nice review of several products,

  9. David Horne says:

    Great load of information there I found it very intriguing.

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