Courtesy of happy-neuron.com

Pumping Neurons

By Stacy Weiner
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Most of the time I'm fine. But some days I can't find the car keys. And I can't recall the name of the nice lady who lives two houses down. And I wonder if next time I will be able to stop my car fast enough to avoid a thrill-seeking squirrel. And sometimes even simple, two-syllable words stick in my mouth like peanut butter.

Yet, ironically, I can remember quite well the fact that as we age, some of the connections between our neurons begin to deteriorate. And if, like me, you are among the country's 78 million baby boomers, you might try wrapping your brain around this: At about age 30, our gray matter starts shrinking, and the downhill process accelerates at 60 or so.

Not to worry, say creators of Internet-based "mental gymnasiums": Their online mind games can pump up your memory, reflexes, attention span and more.

In fact, online players -- there are thousands of them, according to the gym operators -- claim they have become less clumsy, more articulate and generally sharper since starting to work out with the sites' various exercises.

For many years, scientists adhered to the old dog/new trick notion. But recent research shows that the brain remains plastic, or basically trainable, throughout life. In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2002, significant percentages of the 2,802 participants age 65 and older who trained for five weeks for about 2 1/2 hours per week improved their memory, reasoning and information-processing speed.

When we learn, we create physical changes inside our heads. By practicing a skill, we repeatedly stimulate the same area of the brain, which strengthens existing neural connections and creates new ones. Over time, we can become more cognitively efficient, using fewer neurons to do the same job. And the more often we fire up certain mental circuits, the easier it is to get them going again.

If I wanted to limber up my neurons, doing so online seemed a good idea -- it required no special game-playing equipment, for example -- so I set out to test a few brain-training sites. Because little fully independent, gold-standard scientific assessment of such sites exists, I entered with some skepticism.

"The consumer has to really be aware when they go to the different sites," says George Rebok, a Johns Hopkins professor and a contributor to the 2002 JAMA study. "Some of the exercises may have empirical science backing them up, but a lot of them may not."


I started my tour of three of the bigger online workout sites at http://mybraintrainer.com/ , which boasts 6,000 subscribers. Launched in 2002, much of the site is the brainchild of Josh Reynolds, inventor of . . . the Thighmaster. Lest you strain a credulity muscle, note that an unpublished study found a significant increase in IQ among people who trained on the program's exercises for a month, according to MyBrainTrainer.

I clicked on the site. Did I want improved function and speed in 10 to 20 minutes per day after as few as 21 days? That was a no-brainer, so I got started with the free brain power test. My task: to respond, as quickly as possible, by hitting the right arrow key when a word-and-picture pair matched, the left arrow key when it did not. When the word "reversal" accompanied a pair, I was to switch my arrow selection.

The test was a breeze compared with the site's complex scoring reports. When I finally understood my score, I discovered that I was only a hair above average. But for $9.95 I could spend four months on the site trying to improve my brain power. Yes! I wanted that!

Pretty soon, though, I found MyBrainTrainer's emphasis on speed and on comparing my mental muscle to other members' a bit of a brain drain. I did enjoy some of the site's niftier gadgets, including a message board for sharing workout tips and a BrainDiary, in which I could track my scores before and after such mind-altering influences as, say, sleep.

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