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”.
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.