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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.

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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.”
    http://www.sharpbrains.com/blog/2007/08/08/cognitive-enhancement-and-exercise-by-dr-elkhonon-goldberg/

    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,
    http://www.sharpbrains.com/blog/2007/02/03/mindfit-and-posit-science-in-the-wall-street-journals-putting-brain-exercises-to-the-test/

  9. David Horne says:

    Great load of infor­ma­tion there I found it very intrigu­ing.

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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters, and more, SharpBrains is an independent market research firm and think tank tracking health and performance applications of brain science.