You May Unrot Your Mind

By Aalok Mehta
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 28, 2006

A half-hour of cardio work. An hour hitting the weights. Twenty minutes playing video games. Is this the workout of the future?

It could be, if the claims Nintendo is making about its "Brain Training" games turn out to be accurate. The games, the first of which is scheduled for U.S. release next month, include a variety of mental exercises the company says are designed to keep aging minds youthful and healthy.

Brain Training is "kind of like a treadmill for the mind," said Perrin Kaplan, vice president of marketing and corporate affairs for Nintendo of America. "Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day" will go on sale April 17; its sequel, "Big Brain Academy," will be released June 5. Both games are played on Nintendo's DS handheld system.

Nintendo worked with Ryuta Kawashima, a Japanese neurologist, to develop the series. In Nintendo publicity materials, Kawashima explains that people can keep their brains young by repeatedly performing simple, fast-paced mental activities. These include counting the number of syllables in phrases, memorizing words and performing simple math problems. (Kawashima could not be reached for comment.)

Holding the dual-screen Nintendo DS device open like a book, players perform these activities on the system's touch-sensitive screen or using its built-in microphone. After playing for the first time, the games assign users a "brain age" they are meant to improve over time.

Brain Age includes 14 basic activities and several additional side games; the number puzzle game SuDoKu was added to the U.S. version.

The games are aimed at older and more casual players who aren't likely to be drawn to the more common action, adventure and racing games, Kaplan said. The series is already popular in Japan, where each title has sold more than 1 million copies and spurred several copycat versions.

Kaplan, 46, says the games are especially appealing for people such as herself who are approaching middle age and are "focused on keeping sharp."

Most Americans who have played the U.S. version of the game so far are affiliated with Nintendo.

"It has an attraction to it that's different from other games," said Alan Averill, part of the team at Nintendo that converted the game from Japanese into English. "You see a tangible benefit, and you take away a sense of pride and achievement you don't get from other games."

But independent scientists remain skeptical that "Brain Training" has real benefits.

Some research has linked regular mental exercise throughout life with delayed onset of dementia. And a few preliminary studies suggest that performing such activities as crossword puzzles and board games can boost cognitive abilities. But these data are not conclusive.

"There are actually no studies at this time showing that sustained mental engagement results in any general improvements in cognition," said Denise C. Park, professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

A good example of the uncertainty lies in the problem of color. Psychologists have long known that people read words more quickly than they can name colors. People have an especially difficult time when asked to identify the color blue if the word "green" is written in blue ink, for example. "Brain Age" features a timed version of this activity, known as the Stroop Test. But it's not clear whether improving scores on the Stroop Test has wider benefits.

"We, as scientists, suspect that this may be true, but thus far, studies have not proven this," says Park.

According to Arthur P. Shimamura, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, the Nintendo games do target "the kinds of things older people have trouble with," such as memory and recall. But "we just don't know how much it would help in real-life situations."

Besides, mental games are just one potential tool for keeping a mind in shape. Twenty percent of the blood in the human body goes to that organ, so maintaining good circulation is important, Shimamura said.

"For brain health, physical exercise is an important factor as well."

Gamers hate it when they say that. ยท

Aalok Mehta is a producer for Comments:

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