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Brain Training Exercises: The Science

The question is a simple one: do mental exercises help improve cognitive abilities? The answer, unfortunately, is not so simple. Research published in the journal Nature suggests that such brain training workouts do not actually help.

The study followed 11,430 participants over the course of six weeks, as they went through a training program online. They were divided into three groups. The first did tasks that involved reasoning, planning and problem-solving. The second had more complex tasks, which involved memory, attention, math and visual-spatial processing.The control group looked up answers to trivia questions online.

All participants were given cognitive-assessment tests before and after the six-week regimen, and all showed the same slight improvement. Study co-author Jessica Grahn says this was not due to the training, but from what we might call the "practice effect." When we do something we get better at it, and this includes taking tests. In other words, because they had taken the test once before the participants improved a bit just from that practice.

All participants improved more dramatically at the particular exercises they were engaged in. Even the one looking up answers to trivia questions became much more proficient at it. But this did not seem to transfer over to a more general improvement in cognitive abilities. The Nature paper concluded, "the widely held belief that commercially available computerized brain-training programs improve general cognitive function in the wider population lacks empirical support."

Not all scientists agree with this conclusion. For example, Torkel Klingberg, of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, criticizes the "quality control" in the study because participants were all at home rather than in a more controlled environment, and because the actual amount of training was insufficient. Sessions of ten minutes were used, with twenty-four completed during the six weeks. For a general improvement in cognitive ability, Klingberg says, "Ours and others' research suggests that 8 to 12 hours of training on one specific test is needed..."

In his own research Klingberg has used brain scans to show that the number of dopamine receptors increases in the brain after brain training. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved in many cognitive functions including learning.

In a Chinese study published in the journal BMC Medicine, it was found that elderly adults (ages 65 to 75 years old) clearly benefited from mental training exercises. Two different programs were used (and there was a control group), and both seemed to work. The participants who had the more varied training did best, and improvements in some areas, like memory, were still evident a year later.

What Now?

The science isn't quite clear, but in the future it seems likely that some mental exercises will be shown to have a beneficial effect on brainpower, and not just for the elderly. We will have to wait to see which ones are most effective, and how much time must be devoted to them to get an effect. In the meantime, there are some things you can do right now to boost your cognitive power, and some of them have a lot of scientific evidence for them already.

To start with all the research about physical exercise and its effects on the brain show that it helps. Do aerobic exercises three times weekly for at least twenty minutes and you'll have better brain health due to an increase in circulation and oxygen-carrying capacity. Basically a healthy body makes for a healthier brain.

But there is even better news about physical activity. It has also been found to have a more immediate effect. Get ten minutes of exercise right now and your brain activity will speed up. Tests show faster and more accurate decision making ability from a bit of exercise. So walk around the block twice when you need a mental boost.

Other Brain Training Exercises

There has been quite a bit of research which suggests that activities which involve hand-eye coordination cause new neurons to grow in the brain. Whether this means a general brainpower boost or just improvement in the specific activities practiced is not clear, but it can't hurt to have the extra neurons up there. Playing the piano, tennis and any sports that require you to use your eyes in conjunction with your hands will have this effect.

Neurobics are another type of brain exercises that show some promise for general cognitive improvement. There are two pages on these here: Neurobics.

Beyond these rather minimal options there is another approach you might want to consider. Since we generally want more brainpower because we think it will help with certain activities, why not just work on those activities? In other words, if you want brainpower in order to get better test scores, practice taking tests. If you want to play better chess, play more often. Even the research that questions the more general benefits of brain training shows that it definitely helps with the specific tasks that are part of the exercises.

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