Thoughts on the emerging “Brain Fitness” movement and Brainwave Entrainment for seniors

There is a rapidly growing interest in brain fitness today. The aging baby boomer generation is feeling the effects of time, and many are perhaps interested in repairing the damage made by overindulgence in the 60’s. ;) Research over the past few decades has indicated strong links between an active brain and defense against age-related mental deterioration, including the ability to stave off diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

The industry is seeing a boom of new companies, and a lot of related research appears to be in the works. A new study from the University of California-Irvine analyzed the ability of regular mental workouts to delay the progress of Alzheimer’s in hundreds of mice (I know what you’re thinking: how do you give a rat a mental workout?! – I was hoping it would be something innovative, but apparently they just used the traditional rat maze). Another study funded by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), analyzed the effect of a mere 10 sessions of cognitive skills training on the elderly, showing significant increases in the ability to succeed in daily tasks such as driving and managing finances. The cognitive improvements held for nearly a year, after only 10 initial sessions! Very promising.

Because of this large emerging market for cognitive improvements, we’re seeing a lot of new faces pop up in the industry. Sharp BrainsRocky Mountain Learning, Posit Science and Vigorous Mind all offer affordable software for brain exercise. Happy Neuron and My Brain Trainer offer online-based “mind gyms” and brain fitness advice. There are probably many more I’m not aware of yet. Many are boasting studies with very promising results, such as a study on Happy Neuron that showed an increase in brain activity confirmed by PET scans. Many of these companies also have Neuroscientists in advisory positions, or on staff like we do.

These programs use puzzles, games and brain teasers to focus the mind on tasks involving memory, attention or complex use of language. Some also integrate nutritional advice and even regular meditation into the regimen, such as the Happy Neuron mentioned above.

The interest in brain fitness is not just on the fringe, or relegated to concerned baby boomers. Some large, established companies are investing in this, and marketing to all ages. Notably, Nintendo recently released a game called “Brain Age”, meant to exercise and sharpen the mind in a fun, entertaining way. You can find this title today in nearly every gaming store.

Of course I am hoping that all this interest in puzzles and games is going to carry over to Neurofeedback and Brainwave Entrainment (BWE), which have also shown great promise with age-related mental problems, as much as they have with ADD. In 1998 Thomas Budzynski, Ph.D. used both Neurofeedback and BWE to vastly improve the cognitive function of a 75 year old man. In 2001, Budzynski and Tang successfully treated 31 seniors by randomly stimulating frequencies ranging from 9-22 hz over about 33 sessions. In a 2004 study by Berg and Siever, 18 hz was stimulated in the left hemisphere and 10 hz in the right, resulting in significant improvements in geriatric depression and balance. Our own Dr. Huang has a great interest in cognitive decline and aging, having focused much of her early neuroscience work on related subjects. You can find a session designed for seniors in our Neuro-Programmer product.

Baby boomers are not just seeking out mental exercise either. American Sports Data reports that Gym memberships for people over 55 have seen a surge of 33%, while memberships among the younger crowd has seen nearly no growth over the same time period. Yoga and Tai Chi have grown 118%, cycling by 66%, elliptical training by 306% – the list goes on and on. The importance of exercise to mental health should not be underestimated. In fact there is some controversy over whether “brain fitness” games offer more mental benefits than a regular physical fitness routine, although there seems to be very little argument that combining both physical and mental fitness into any lifestyle will result in dramatic enhancement of the brain’s capabilities.

Speaking of games and exercise, as the “Nintendo generation” loses its high metabolism, many companies are working to combine gaming with physical exercise as well. I will admit that I own a Game Bike and couldn’t live without it. I have heard that a game-based tread mill is also in the works.

If you’re interested, here is a free online guide to maintaining brain fitness: http://www.thirdage.com/living/games/brainfitness/index.html

 

4 Comments to “Thoughts on the emerging “Brain Fitness” movement and Brainwave Entrainment for seniors”

  1. Peter 22 March 2007 at 4:54 pm #

    Hi Adam, great post!

    Something I find very interesting is the fact that while studies show that performing different puzzles strengthens the neural networks of the brain and perhaps keeps dementia at bay, there is increasing evidence that meditation or even mindfulness meditation (being in the now or being alert to the present) does the same thing. So, by being alert to the present, the mind becomes strengthened similar to puzzle solving.

    What is even more interesting is, can the neural networks of the brain be doubled or enhanced by performing the puzzles everyday and practicing mindfulness meditation?

  2. Adam 22 March 2007 at 5:07 pm #

    That is an interesting question – do the results of brain fitness methods stack on to each other?

    I haven’t looked too deeply into many of the companies I mentioned, but it seems the more successful ones also offer advice in regards to meditation and exercise. So, it would be my guess that it does increase the effect, though probably doesn’t double it. Of course there are many other advantages to exercise and meditation, beyond Neurogenesis…

    There is also some controversy over the effect puzzles and games have over already healthy minds. So far, mostly seniors have been studied.

    Lots of interesting analysis to look at down the road. :)

     

    On a related note: There was a recent article in newsweek about how Neurogenesis occurs after aerobic exercise. http://www.neurosciencemarketing.com/blog/articles/exercise-brain.htm

  3. Alvaro 24 March 2007 at 7:37 pm #

    Adam, great overview. I encourage you to submit this article to the Brain Fitness Blog Carnival. Btw, there are a good number of studies on kids and healthy adults, but for some reason the media is so far focusing on seniors.

    Peter:
    – those programs go way beyond “performing puzzles”. You can see some demos in our site
    – you are completely right that meditation and exercise are important too. Exercise can enhance the rate of creation of new neurons-but you then need mental exercise to secure and help survive those neurons and use them in a meaningful way. Meditation is a great tool for training attention and emotional self-management, but other programs are better at training other “mental muscles”.

    We did an interview with a neuroscientist that explains this trend very well, with quotes such as

    “Rigorous and targeted cognitive training has been used in clinical practice for many years. It can help improve memory, attention, confidence and competence, reasoning skills, even how to reduce anxiety and deal with uncomfortable situations.” and “The brain evolves as we age. Some areas, such as pattern recognition, get better with age. Some require extra-workouts in order to reduce “chinks in the armor” and increase neuroprotection through the Cognitive (or Brain) Reserve). Hence, the need for targeted cognitive training.”

    Check the full interview here

    http://www.sharpbrains.com/blog/2006/12/08/dr-elkhonon-goldberg-on-brain-fitness-programs-and-cognitive-training/

  4. Peter 25 March 2007 at 4:43 pm #

    Alvaro, thanks for the link.


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