Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

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Posit Science, Nintendo Brain Age, and Brain Training Topics

A few col­leagues referred me over the week­end to a very nice arti­cle at busi­ness pub­li­ca­tion Port­fo­lio.

While the arti­cle does an excel­lent job at intro­duc­ing the read­er to the con­cept and promise of com­put­er­ized cog­ni­tive assess­ments, it also con­tributes to the mythol­o­gy of “Brain Age”. MRI scan neuroimaging

Let’s first take a look at the arti­cle How Smart Are You: The busi­ness of assess­ing cog­ni­tion and mem­o­ry is mov­ing from test­ing brain-impaired patients to assess­ing healthy peo­ples’ brains online.

A cou­ple of quotes:

- “Cog­ni­tive Drug Research is one a hand­ful of busi­ness­es, most of them out­side of the U.S., that work with phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies to test how new drugs for every­thing from nico­tine addic­tion to Alzheimer’s dis­ease affect the mind’s abil­i­ty to remem­ber things, make deci­sions, and ana­lyze infor­ma­tion.”

- “Cog­ni­tive tests have been around for a cen­tu­ry as exam­i­na­tions tak­en with paper and pen­cil. In the 1970s and ‘80s the tests shift­ed to com­put­ers, Cog­ni­tive Drug Research founder Kei­th Wesnes says.

So far, so good. In fact, one of the key high­lights from the mar­ket report we released in March was that “Large-scale, ful­ly-auto­mat­ed cog­ni­tive assess­ments are being used in a grow­ing num­ber of clin­i­cal tri­als. This opens the way for the devel­op­ment of inex­pen­sive con­sumer-fac­ing, base­line cog­ni­tive assess­ments.” And we pro­filed a few lead­ing com­pa­nies in the space: Brain Resource Com­pa­ny, Cog­ni­tive Drug Research, CNS Vital Signs and CogState.

Now, the arti­cle is accom­pa­nied by a 5–7 minute quick test that promis­es to give us our “Brain Age”. And this doesn’t come from Nin­ten­do, but from Cog­ni­tive Drug Research, a respect­ed sci­ence-based com­pa­ny.

You can check it out your­self: Take the Test

Why do I find this mis­lead­ing? Because the con­cept of hav­ing a “brain age” is, itself, pro­found­ly unsci­en­tif­ic. It is one thing to have that con­cept pop­u­lar­ized by a game devel­op­er such as Nin­ten­do through its pop­u­lar Brain Age/ Train­ing Series, and anoth­er one to have it rein­forced by com­pa­nies that are devel­op­ing and mar­ket­ing sci­ence-based appli­ca­tions.

Anoth­er exam­ple: the radio ads for the PBS pro­gram titled Brain Fit­ness Pro­gram, where lis­ten­ers of all ages get the impres­sion (as many friends and col­leagues have report­ed) that, should they buy the Posit Sci­ence Brain Fit­ness Pro­gram, they can expect their brains “reju­ve­nat­ed” by 10 years. This, I hear often, must be true, com­ing from PBS.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, it isn’t. And it isn’t because the claim is found­ed on the same faulty premise of hav­ing a “brain age”.

What is going on?

First, the good news. Today we know today that the brain retains life­long plas­tic­i­ty (the abil­i­ty to change itself through expe­ri­ence). Aging does not mean auto­mat­ic decline.

Fur­ther­more, we know that a vari­ety of lifestyle fac­tors, includ­ing phys­i­cal and men­tal exer­cise, can influ­ence how our men­tal abil­i­ties evolve as we age. We can delay or slow down age-relat­ed decline. Not only that, we can improve our abil­i­ties, and a num­ber of com­put­er-based pro­grams have shown how they can help spe­cif­ic groups of peo­ple train and enhance spe­cif­ic cog­ni­tive skills.

Now, what is impor­tant to rec­og­nize is that there is not one over­all “brain age”. We can view our brain func­tions or cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties as a vari­ety of skills, some more per­cep­tion-relat­ed, some more mem­o­ry-relat­ed, some more lan­guage-relat­ed, some more visu­al, some more abstract-think­ing and plan­ning ori­ent­ed. All sci­ence-based brain fit­ness prod­ucts in the mar­ket today tar­get spe­cif­ic cog­ni­tive skills. The research that has been pub­lished shows how spe­cif­ic brain func­tions can be improved. But there is no gen­er­al “brain age” that can be mea­sured or trained in a mean­ing­ful way.

Let’s ana­lyze the PBS Posit Sci­ence-relat­ed mes­sage: you can reju­ve­nate your brain by 10 years. What would this mean, were it to be true? per­haps that ALL cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties would go back to where they were 10 years before. and that this would hap­pen for indi­vid­u­als of all ages: in our 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s and so on. It would also mean that, giv­en that reju­ve­nat­ed “brain age”, our risk of devel­op­ing Alzheimer’s symp­toms would be adjust­ed to reflect our “new” brain age. And that the evo­lu­tion of our cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties over the rest of our lives would reflect our new-found “brain age”.

Has this been shown? Unfor­tu­nate­ly, not. The “10 years” claim seems based on one pub­lished study, and sev­er­al unpub­lished ones, where indi­vid­u­als with an aver­age age of around 70 years take on a very intense audi­to­ry pro­cess­ing train­ing pro­gram that enables them to improve relat­ed audi­to­ry cog­ni­tive skills by a sig­nif­i­cant per­cent­age. Where­by, on aver­age, and on those spe­cif­ic skills, they reach a lev­el com­pa­ra­ble to peo­ple 60 years old.

But this doesn’t say any­thing about oth­er cog­ni­tive skills. Or Alzheimer’s relat­ed risks. Or the cog­ni­tive tra­jec­to­ries that will fol­low.

Just think about this: if, by attend­ing an inten­sive ten­nis camp, you were able to serve at a lev­el com­pa­ra­ble to peo­ple 10 years younger than your age…would you say that your body is now 10 years younger? Prob­a­bly not. You’d say that now you play ten­nis bet­ter. Which is a sig­nif­i­cant ben­e­fit in itself if that’s what you are after.

I am aware that these dis­tinc­tions, root­ed in cog­ni­tive sci­ence, may not be as com­pelling as one that promis­es “you can reduce your brain age by 10 years”. But it is impor­tant to invest in edu­ca­tion for the pub­lic and health pro­fes­sion­als to help the mar­ket mature in a ratio­nal way. Not to try to out­com­pete Nin­ten­do.

In sum­ma­ry, the great news is that there are more tools avail­able than ever before to assess and train a vari­ety of cog­ni­tive skills, in what is still today a very small, but grow­ing mar­ket. Nin­ten­do, Posit Sci­ence, Cog­ni­tive Drug Research and oth­ers are offer­ing valu­able prod­ucts and ser­vices.

The bad news (is this real­ly news?) is that we shouldn’t be expect­ing mag­ic pills and that “brain age” is a fic­tion.

In case you wonder…I do have and enjoy my copy Nin­ten­do Brain Age, and appre­ci­ate it as a stim­u­lat­ing game. I sim­ply don’t out­source my brain fit­ness to Dr. Kawashima.

Fur­ther read­ing:

- Neu­ro­science Inter­view Series

- It is Not Only Cars That Deserve Good Main­te­nance: Brain Care 101

- 10-Ques­tion Pro­gram Eval­u­a­tion Check­list

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12 Responses

  1. jk says:

    That test said that my brain age is 18. What is that sup­posed to mean?

    I’m 35, phys­i­cal­ly. If I’m slow­er now than I was when I was 18, what would my brain age have been when I was 18?

    The whole notion of “brain age” seems rather absurd.

  2. buddy says:

    @jk

    How is it your 18 on brainage if the youngest you can get is 20

  3. Alvaro says:

    JK seems to be refer­ring to the “brain age” test linked above, which accom­pa­nied the arti­cle I am com­ment­ing on. Not to Nin­ten­do Brain Age.

  4. Julie says:

    It nev­er seizes to amaze me that peo­ple just don’t inves­ti­gate how to keep their brain healthy. Pick up a copy of 7 Steps to a Healthy Brain by Dr. Paul Win­ner.

  5. jk says:

    Yes, as Alvaro guessed, I was refer­ring to the test linked above. I have no expe­ri­ence with the notion of ‘brain age’ apart from that test. At the end of the test, it dis­plays a “brain age”, with no link to an expla­na­tion about how to inter­pret the score or what it means.

    I searched around the site of the com­pa­ny that pro­duced the test (cognitivedrugresearch.com) and found no infor­ma­tion about the test. I sent them a ques­tion (more than 24 hours ago, now) and have not received a reply.

  6. tanya says:

    Accord­ing to most abil­i­ties test­ing peo­ple hit their men­tal peak at age 28–33. So if some­one had an age of 18, it should mean that you could actu­al­ly increase skill which would be the same if you were 43.

  7. Thanks for sub­mit­ting this post to our blog car­ni­val. We just pub­lished the 36th edi­tion of Brain Blog­ging and your arti­cle was fea­tured!

    Thank you.

    Sin­cere­ly,
    Sha­heen

  8. Helene Zemel says:

    Thanks for your con­tri­bu­tion to “Take Charge of Your Health Care Car­ni­val.” As with any­thing, keep­ing your brain sharp by using it and chal­leng­ing it helps at any age.

  9. JanetWalsh says:

    The brain test froze on the first test with the yeses after about 16 key­strokes.

  10. Cat says:

    Is there per­haps a web­site to read on what your brain age means? I have a brain age of 18 (as does JK above), and I have no idea what that means.

  11. Lars says:

    Com­plete­ly agree, re brain age. The com­par­i­son to a ten­nis camp is fair, but can be extend­ed.

    What these com­pa­nies claim is not that doing a ten­nis camp will improve your ten­nis abil­i­ty. They claim that doing a ten­nis camp will improve your gen­er­al fit­ness or gen­er­al coor­di­na­tion. The dis­tinc­tion is very impor­tant.

    Who wants to improve at some company’s bare­ly-enter­tain­ing game? The promise of these games is improve­ment in broad­er areas of cog­ni­tion. I’m very inter­est­ed to see if they deliv­er.

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