Protecting the brain.

The joys of growing ever more old!

Last Saturday, in a humorous post called Cognitive Ageing, I wrote:

Or put another way: I can remember everything except the things I forget.

Like many others of my age, the short-term memory is not as sharp as it used to be (not that I can remember when that was! 😉 )

Today’s post is to pass on a recommendation for a programme called Lumosity. It was recommended to me by my local doctor and I signed up in February of this year. Clearly, it is impossible to know, in a scientific way, how much good it has done me but instinctively I feel it has made a strong, positive difference.  Let me quote from their website:

The Science Behind Lumosity

neuroplasticity-banner-77f6a688022811b36d894b9288bd49f3

Neuroplasticity: how the brain is capable of change

Scientists have historically believed that once a person reaches adulthood, their cognitive abilities are immutable. But beginning in the early twentieth century, that theory has been contested by evidence suggesting that the brain’s abilities are in fact malleable and plastic. According to this principle of neuroplasticity, the brain is constantly changing in response to various experiences. New behaviors, new learnings, and even environmental changes or physical injuries may all stimulate the brain to create new neural pathways or reorganize existing ones, fundamentally altering how information is processed.

One of the most dramatic examples of neuroplasticity at work comes from a 2000 brain scan study on London taxi drivers (Maguire et al., 2000). In order to earn a license, London taxi drivers typically spend about two years learning to navigate the city’s serpentine streets. What mark, the study’s researchers wondered, did this long, rigorous period of training leave on taxi drivers’ brains? Under the scrutiny of fMRI scans, 16 male taxi drivers in this study were revealed to have larger hippocampuses than a control group of 50 healthy males of similar ages. And the longer the time spent as a taxi driver, the larger the hippocampus tended to be. As a brain area involved in memory and navigation, the hippocampus likely changed in response to the taxi drivers’ experiences.

Most instances of neuroplasticity-based changes in the brain are much more subtle. But in recent decades, it’s cases like that of the London taxi drivers that have inspired certain members of the scientific community to pursue the next logical step in research: rather than passively waiting to see how the brain might respond to circumstances, is it possible to direct that capacity for change, targeting improvements in specific key abilities?

The science of cognitive training seeks to answer this question. In 2013 alone, 30 cognitive training studies were registered on the government database ClinicalTrials.gov. Lumosity scientists, with the help of outside collaborators, contribute to this research effort: so far, 7 peer reviewed studies have been published using Lumosity as a cognitive training tool for diverse populations, including healthy adults, cancer survivors, elderly people, and children with a genetic disorder.

Maguire, E. A., Gadian, D. G., Johnsrude, I. S., Good, C. D., Ashburner, J., Frackowiak, R. S. J., & Frith, C. D. (2000). Navigation-related structural change in the hippocampi of taxi drivers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 97(8), 4398-4403.

Clearly, without trying it out yourself, it’s difficult for me to convey the nature of the ‘games’ that are provided.

What I can do is to republish a review that appeared on the website MD-Health.

Does Lumosity Work?

Lumosity was designed by several leading neuroscientists, which adds an air of credibility to this popular site, and combines the perks of social networking with brain training technology that supposedly makes your brain function at a higher level. But do these brain training games really work? There is plenty of evidence to support and contract the claims made by this popular gaming website, so it is important to look at the facts before making this determination.

What is Lumosity?

Lumosity is a webpage that features several different brain training games. Players are encouraged to create a profile that allows them to track their progress and play certain games that target mental flexibility, memory, problem solving, speed and attention. The idea is that performing these tasks regularly will help “train” your brain to function more effectively.

How Does Lumosity Work?

The web page explains that Lumosity is based on neuroplasticity, which treats the brain like a muscle that needs to adapt when it is presented with new challenges. The idea here is that if you present your brain with harder challenges, the portion of your brain meant to help solve them will grow larger and more functional. Previously it was believed that neuroplasticity was only available in children with brains that were still developing, but recent science leads researchers to believe that this skill is also available for adults.

Lumosity depends on two basic elements when users create their training program. First, users need to use the program regularly. This is similar to creating a daily routine at your local gym to work and tone your muscles. Your routine will not be as effective if you do not stick with it. The second part of this training program depends on users using many different types of games. There are 35 different games available on Lumosity in addition to many different skill levels within these games. Players should use a variety of different games and increase the difficulty level over time to help ensure that they are continuing to challenge the mind. Creating your initial profile gives the player an opportunity to see what weaknesses they have so they can create a routine that is ideal for their situation.

Is Lumosity Effective?

There are several scientific studies that lead scientists to believe that the brain training activities at Lumosity do have an effect on the brain. A study at the University of Michigan found that adults that used brain training games for a regular amount of time saw an improvement in test scores for dual attention asks and memory games in multiple tests. A similar study at Brown University also saw adults exceeding expectations in brain performance after using brain training games to aid in their work. These programs were found to boost the working memory which helps users keep track of tasks they are currently performing.

The thing to remember when analyzing these results is that they came from laboratory conditions. These adults used Lumosity games for hours every day for several months. Users that do not work on a similar schedule will not see these types of results. There is a great deal of evidence that supports the idea that brain training games can help grow and develop the mind, but not necessarily any evidence that Lumosity and the brain training games available here are more effective than other training games that are on the market elsewhere. In general, keeping the mind active and challenging your mind to learn more advanced tasks and ways of thinking are healthy and can help you perform tasks more effectively, and if Lumosity helps you accomplish this, then it can be seen as a positive asset.

There was a review published in The Guardian newspaper back in April, 2013 from which this extract is offered:

According to the website for Lumosity, which devised these games and is one of the best-known internet providers of brain training, setting aside a few minutes each day to complete the above tasks can make you feel “smarter, sharper, and brighter”. By factoring in a mental workout in the same way that we might go to the gym to exercise, we get cleverer and our IQ rockets.

That, at least, is the idea. And there are lots of people who buy it. In recent years, brain training has become a multimillion-pound business with companies such as Jungle Memory, Nintendo and CogniFit developing a wide range of user-friendly neuroscientific puzzles for the average punter. Lumosity itself has grown by 150% year-on-year since its launch in 2005 and now reaches more than 35 million people worldwide. In January alone, the company’s mobile app was downloaded nearly 50,000 times a day and its revenue hit $24m (£16m).

Co-founded by Michael Scanlon after he abandoned his neuroscience PhD at Stanford University, California, the business also has an extensive research programme that studies the effects of computerised cognitive training as well as conducting experiments over the web.

I can also republish another article from the Lumosity website:

The Science Behind Lumosity

study-results-banner-b03eee32c4b930e36629ef65d0eba902

 

The scientific roots of the Lumosity program

Research has found that certain types of activities may impact the brain more than others (Mechelli et al., 2004; Gaser and Schlaug, 2003; Draganski et al., 2006). It’s believed that as an activity is repeated, the brain tends to fall back on the same set of existing neural pathways. To continue changing, the brain must be exposed to novel, adaptive experiences that challenge it to work in new ways.

Drawing on this idea, Lumosity is designed to give each person a set of exercises that challenge their cognitive abilities.

Lumosity “games” are based on a combination of common neuropsychological and cognitive tasks, many of which have been used in research for decades, and new tasks designed by an in-house science team. Working with experienced game designers, Lumosity neuroscientists have transformed these tasks into over 40 challenging, adaptive games.

Lumosity’s game-based training program is designed to expose your brain to gradually increasing levels of challenges, adapting game difficulty to your individual ability level. As your scores increase, you may encounter new or more difficult games. Modelled from the concept of a physical personal trainer, Lumosity pushes you to operate at the limits of your abilities and stay challenged.

Gaser, C. & Schlaug, G. (2003). Brain structures differ between musicians and non-musicians. Journal of Neuroscience, 23(27), 9240-9245.

Draganski, B., Gaser, C., Kempermann, G., Kuhn, H. G., Winkler, J., Büchel, C., & May, A (2006). Temporal and spatial dynamics of brain structure changes during extensive learning. Journal of Neuroscience, 26(23), 6314-6317.

Mechelli, A., Crinion, J. T., Noppeney, U., O’Doherty, J., Ashburner, J., Frackowiak, R. S., & Price, C.J. (2004). Neurolinguistics: Structural plasticity in the bilingual brain. Nature, 431, 757.

Lumosity is not expensive and while it is impossible to be objective about the positive difference it is giving me I wouldn’t give up on it.

Now where did I leave my car keys???

4 thoughts on “Protecting the brain.

  1. Thanks very much for this. I spent six years taking care of my aunt who was dying of Alzheimer’s and saw my mother, her sister suffer from dementia in her final years. Both ladies lived past 90. I mention that to show why I am particularly sensitive to mental failing. Here is what Professor Sam Wang, Ph.D. Molecular Molecular Biology and Neuroscience, Princeton University says about brain games, “Professor Wang says that while these products are inspired by science they have not necessarily been proven by science. The benefits tend to be specific to the task practiced. If you do Sudoku puzzles, you will develop skills for doing Sudoku puzzles, but they won’t help your working memory.

    “Unless the activities that you’re practicing span a broad spectrum of abilities, then there is not a proven general benefit to these mental fitness programs. So, the idea that any single brain exercise program late in life can act as a quick fix for general mental function is almost entirely faith-based,” Professor Wang said.

    I pass this along, not to be argumentative. I am 75 years old and don’t want to leave this world like my aunt or my mother. I get daily aerobic exercise. My understanding is that is the kind of activity that sends oxygen to the brain and actually creates new neurotransmitters.

    I have a Page on my blog: http://guysandgoodhealth.com/important-facts-about-your-brain/ with much more information on this.

    1. Tony, what a very helpful reply from you and one that isn’t argumentative in the slightest. We are close in age, I’m 70, and as I notice my memory degrading I am fearful for the future and don’t want, in say 10 years time, to regret not having made an effort to slow down the decline.

      My next action is go across to your link and read the information. But first let me thank you again for your reply; a very honest reply! Best wishes to you, Paul.

  2. I think I should be ok Paul remembering the rows of my knitting patterns LOL for one example .. I do like crosswords though.. 🙂
    I also agree with your previous commenter Tony.. Exercise.. Oxygen to the brain.. so even if you are not able to do high active things.. I would recommend Qi Gong gentle exercise with deep breathing… Like I said in past posts of mine this practice helped heal me from FMS.. as I am sure it allowed oxygen to get to the muscle cells.. But who knows the magic of healing.. For we can all explore our inner selves by going within to tap into our bodies responses.. 🙂

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