Monday, May 21, 2007

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The biology of brain plasticity, including adult neurogenesis, synaptic plasticity, axon regrowth, and synaptic reorganization, is currently one of the most intensively studied areas of neuroscience. One of the burgeoning avenues of research for this field explores how altered plasticity may account for some of the behavioral and neural changes afflicting the aging brain, and is leading to efforts of fostering plasticity and thus "rejuvenate" the brain.

Perhaps the most popular products to emerge from this research are "brain games," which are activities designed to enhance cognitive function. These games have encountered a healthy bit of well-deserved skepticism from the scientific community; few of them have been validated by techniques even remotely "scientific" (by including, for example, controls), yet many make grand claims of improving some general notion of "intelligence" and well-being. There are, however, a few exceptions: "brain fitness" products emerging from within the scientific community, such as Posit Science, intended for people in their 60s and 70s, and Lumosity, which targets a younger population (i.e. baby boomers.) Since many functions, such as processing speed, working memory, and attention, begin declining around the age of 30, it seems reasonable to start on the early side.

Lumosity is a new program, so the games are still in "beta" phase and thus free, and these games are easily the most entertaining of any I've previously played (evoking behavior reminiscent of my childhood Tetris addiction.) More importantly, the games are inspired by research on human cognition; the company's head of neuroscience research studied with Jon Cohen at Princeton and John Gabrieli when the latter was at Stanford, among others, and there are a number of cognitive neuroscientists on the board of advisors. I recently met one of the founders at Stanford, and after discussing my research on adult hippocampal neurogenesis, I ended up joining these cognitive neuroscientists as a fellow scientific advisor. Anyways, the group at Lumos Labs performed a randomized, controlled study, which I can personally endorse, showing that Lumosity users improved on tasks of working memory and visual attention (there's an SFN poster and white paper available for your scrutiny as well).

Further scientific validation of the program's ability to improve various cognitive functions is certainly needed, and is in progress. Most importantly, of course, will be evidence that this sort of cognitive training can have long-term effects that translate to "real-world" functional improvements. In the meantime, the games are fun (with enticingly impressive high score lists) and certainly can't hurt.


Madam Fathom said...

It hopefully goes without saying, but I suppose I should mention that I do not receive any financial compensation as a board member. This is my honest assessment, and I can personally speak to the significant influence of cognitive neuroscience research on their games, as well as the scientific validity of their study.

AlvaroF said...

Hello there:

Are you familiar with the work of Torkel Klingberg and Bradley Gibson on working memory training, Daniel Gopher on training of attentional control, Bradley Appenhans on emotional self-regulation, JD Edwards on cognitive training...we have interviews with many of these PUBLISHED researchers in our site,

I find it surprising that a seemingly well-informed post on cognitive training by an expert advocates one NOT PUBLISHED methodology while ignoring PUBLISHED, PEER-REVIEWED ones. I guess it just reflects the fragmented and emerging state of research...

btw, I drop by Stanford often, (as well as know and appreciate the founders of Lumos Labs), so we can meet if you are interested in learning more.

Madam Fathom said...

Hi Alvaro,

I just saw this comment, so I apologize for not responding until now. Thanks for the references. As you know, Lumosity is a very new program, still in its developmental stages, so it's not surprising that they don't have any publications yet. However, I have worked with the game designers, and I know that peer-reviewed, published work (such as that to which you refer) is the foundation of their games. Nevertheless, I noted in my post that "further scientific validation of the program's ability to improve various cognitive functions is certainly needed".

I endorse their games because 1) they are based on published research on cognitive science, and 2) they are fun, which is essential for the sustainability of any of these programs.

I don't consider myself an "expert" in this field, and I apologize if I gave you this impression. I do, however, know when a game is challenging, and makes me feel invigorated and mentally sharp. Lumosity accomplishes all of these, at least for me. Further, I believe that, based on my interactions with the designers and my understanding of cognitive neuroscience, Lumosity is likely to improve the intended executive functions, (certainly more than programs lacking a significant scientific basis e.g. BrainAge).

AlvaroF said...

thanks for your answer. now, it seems the only, and non-published, data they mention refers to a very small study with no real control, so whatever effect they found may just be due to placebo effect, and no better than BrainAge, or HappyNeuron, or mybraintrainer, or the many other sites that also mention being "based on published research".

I may be wrong, because the only data available is pretty limited: what did the control group do in that unpublished study?

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