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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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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