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Can too little stimulation lead to flabby mental function?

| Saturday, May 18, 2013, 6:28 p.m.
Lumosity Word Bubbles game
Lumosity Word Bubbles game
Lumosity My Brain Profile
Lumosity My Brain Profile

Almost anyone can think of a time they entered a room then immediately forgot why they were there. We've all lost our keys once or twice. And who can't own up to occasionally forgetting your point mid-sentence?

For some people, memory problems stop there. For others, it can affect their abilities to focus at work or school. Anyone looking to combat some of these issues has a slew of websites, apps and virtual programs that offer tools to train the brain.

“At one point, there was this idea that cognitive training was only for older people. That's not the case at all,” says Joe Hardy, vice president of research and development for Lumosity, an online program that uses games to improve core cognitive abilities. Three-quarters of its users are under age 40.

“People come for different reasons. Most come because they want to get sharper and increase their ability to remember things,” Hardy says. “They want better focus at their jobs and at school.”

The games are rooted in neuroplasticity, the idea that an individual's brain can reorganize itself and change. Neuroscientists say exercising one's brain can result in improved attention span, focus, flexibility and problem-solving. It's all about beefing up the working memory, the cognitive function responsible for keeping information in mind and manipulating it. Most sites claim it takes a dozen or so hours spent playing to see results.

The sites have inspired a myriad of research projects devoted to determining their effectiveness. A Google search produces many studies with contradictory claims — some show the games are even better than crosswords for increasing cognitive function; others report all they do is make the user good at the game itself.

Most recently, on May 15, r esearchers at Stanford University published the results of a study examining the effectiveness of Lumosity use in breast cancer patients in the peer-reviewed journal Clinical Breast Cancer. It showed women whose cancer had been treated with chemotherapy demonstrated improved executive function, such as cognitive flexibility, verbal fluency and processing speed after using the exercises. The study also found significant improvement in self-reported measures of everyday executive function and observed some transfer to verbal memory.

“There are some conflicting studies,” says Carol Schramke, director of the Division of Behavioral Neurology at Allegheny General Hospital. “The jury is out. It wouldn't surprise me if it would be better for a certain population. For some, it makes them get comfortable with computers, which is more challenging. But I'm not convinced it's head and shoulders above doing other things.”

Hardy says there is “a lot of confusion in the literature” regarding research on sites like Lumosity, but “really, a focus on neuroscience is the core of the business.”

Lumosity, which costs $15 a month, has 35 million registered users worldwide. Its most popular game, Word Bubbles, challenges users to think of as many words as they can that begin with three provided letters. Hardy calls Lumosity a “gym for your brain.”

“When you go to the gym, there's a whole series of exercise equipment you can use for your arms, biceps, triceps, quads and hamstrings. Similarly, your brain is made of a lot of different functions, and you can exercise the different areas by selectively targeting those functions,” he says.

Some of the “brain training” companies work with universities or health care agencies to provide or improve their services. Cognifit, a free online cognitive assessment and brain-training computer program, partnered with pharmaceutical company Bayer to release a training application for patients with multiple sclerosis.

Cognifit CEO Nathanael Eisenberg says while development of the site was originally spurred by baby boomers' growing concerns with memory loss, it soon expanded to include everyone from younger people looking to stay sharp to others dealing with certain medical conditions.

“Being able to train the memory is very important to lots of markets who use it for different benefits,” Eisenberg says.

Cogmed, an online working memory-training program developed by Pearson, is accessible to anyone but is most commonly used in schools for children with learning disorders, says Travis Millman, vice president and general manager. Clinicians also can add it to patient treatment plans.

“There is a very high correlation between children with poor working memories and problems with reading and math,” Millman says. “It's really critical for learning.”

Users interact with coaches who guide them through the process. Games, like one that involves watching a set of lights illuminate then making them light up in the same order using your mouse or finger, are typically played five times a week for 45 minutes.

“It pushes them until they can't get every trail correct,” says Kathryn Ralph, Cogmed research manager.

Cost for Cogmed varies depending on how it's delivered. Clinicians charge anywhere from $600 to $1,500, whereas in schools, it starts at $300 per student.

Schramke says that while these sites aren't for everyone, they can be good for people who “feel stagnant, feel like they aren't challenged and need to be stimulated in different ways.”

“People who need it can do it, but if you're already challenged in your life, maybe you don't need it,” she says.

Nathan Urban, professor in Carnegie Mellon University's Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition, says the sites have potential to be useful, “the tasks are pretty narrow in terms of what they require.”

“They might not be improving memory — they might be teaching you tricks to get a better score,” he says.

“It's relatively early,” Urban says of the industry. “There is not a lot of basic scientific understanding of the processes involved in allowing the brain to change. Does that mean they will fail? Absolutely not.”

Bonnie deBonis, 47, a screenwriter based in New York, began using Lumosity six months ago and says it's helped her “become more clear in my thinking.”

“I feel better playing it; I perform better playing it,” says deBonis. “It's helped in my creative writing very much.”

She's seen her brain-performance index, a measure of cognitive function, more than double from 604 in November to 1504 today, ranking her in the 99.9 percentile compared to other players her age.

“It's not just a game; it's something that improves your life in a tremendous way,” she says.

Schramke has had patients tell her they use the games, and while she's fine with that, she also stresses the need for people to feel mentally stimulated in many ways.

“I tell them I think that's wonderful, but if you're not also challenging yourself in other ways, that's not so good,” she says. “Find something different that's stimulating to you. If it's good for your brain, continue to do that.”

Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or

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