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.


  1. Deb on December 19, 2007 at 6:58

    Fan­tas­tic post!

  2. Michael on December 19, 2007 at 10:53

    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 on December 19, 2007 at 2:01

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

  4. Ben Fisher on December 19, 2007 at 4:57

    very inter­est­ing thoughts on phys­i­cal vs. men­tal exercise

  5. Helene Zemel on December 21, 2007 at 1:19

    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 on December 21, 2007 at 2:54

    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 on January 1, 2008 at 10:46

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

  8. Alvaro on January 3, 2008 at 11:51

    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 on January 14, 2008 at 3:39

    Great load of infor­ma­tion there I found it very intriguing.

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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