Smarts or Shams?

By Rita Beamish

Baby boomers aren’t alone in grappling with how to remember the whereabouts of their elusive keys, or why they walked downstairs or opened the refrigerator. Brain scientists worldwide tackle the same mysteries, and are making headway, so to speak, in probing the key questions about memory and cognitive capabilities. A vast body of research is expanding, with digital imaging, population studies, genetic analysis, neural mapping, and behavioral studies. Underpinning it all lies a Holy Grail question for hundreds of millions of aging adults:  can we improve our mental abilities? Of equal import is the related question: is it possible to prevent or slow down the decline in cognitive function associated with aging?

These questions drew two dozen leading brain experts from around the world to a daylong meeting at Stanford University — their goal to illuminate the state of knowledge about how, and if, we can improve  memory and cognitive capacity.

The gathering, sponsored by the Stanford Center on Longevity and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, convened amid mounting concern about extravagant claims from commercial  “brain training” programs. Training software generally features interactive memory exercises, with promises ranging from dramatically improved brain health to ”smarter” brains and even the hope of fending off Alzheimer’s disease, and stroke. These claims drew sharp criticisms at the Stanford symposium.

“We need to be cautious as scientists,” said Ulman Lindenberger, director of the Center for Lifespan Psychology at the Max Planck Institute. “When you look at the claims of these programs, they are really wildly exaggerated, because they make promises to you not only that you’ll get better on the task that you are training, but that you actually get a new brain so to speak, that cognitive abilities like your memory in general improve by playing these games. And these are claims that are not backed up by scientific evidence.”

The scientific community has produced its own peer-reviewed studies looking at training people with computerized memory tasks, and measuring changes in intelligence or underlying cognitive abilities. In short, can we train our brains to be smarter? So far, the proof isn’t there, the Stanford group concluded.

But that doesn’t mean that some studies haven’t found positive results, or that training can’t help people remember their grandkids’ names.  Still, the improvements tend to show that practice makes perfect, not that broader mental abilities are transformed, the scientists said.  Importantly, the scientists pointed out that improved performance on trained tasks does not necessarily translate to a sustained boost in broader cognitive function.

The experts’ meeting agreed that further research could shed more light on the question, especially by addressing shortcomings in current literature. For instance, Lindenberger posited, researchers who find negative results are less likely to publish their work. Thus, the current overview may skew more positively than is really the case.

As well, some of the meager outcomes could be rooted in experimental designs that are based on just a few hours of memory exercises, while little is known about how longer-term, more intensive training might affect the brain over time.

“Do we really expect that the well-set, well-wired adult brain would fundamentally change by just eight or nine hours of exposure to anything?” Lindenberger asked. “Eight hours of anything is just nothing in relation to a lifetime of experience. “

Naftali Raz, professor at Wayne State University, suggested that just as booster shots are repeated to ward off disease, it’s likely that brain exercise programs would need repetition over time to produce and maintain any effective results. “Nothing lasts forever,” he said.

Research also should take into account people’s individual differences, fitness and motivation that may affect how their brains respond to training, the scientists said.  Ultimately, some noted, what matters most is relevance to every-day life — the “why do we care” question.

“The big question is does brain training make your life better,” said Denise Park, distinguished chair at the University of Texas at Dallas. “We actually don’t know the answer. What seems clear is that if you do sustained training on some of these packages or games, you get better at the game or the package. The thing that’s less clear is, does it improve your cognitive ability?”

Unknowns about counterproductively raise more questions. If people sit at a computer working on memory exercises by the hour, to what extent does that detract from time spent with family, exercise, or other stimulating activity that could benefit the brain? Park joked that “a sure fire prescription for depression is to suggest that an older adult spend 10 hours a week” in repetitive brain training.

An overview of the research to date produces a sobering big-picture analysis, one that contrasts with individual studies that often herald positive findings, even small ones, with a hopeful spin.

“There’s no question that older adults can learn new skills. But the question is, the underlying core hardware aspects of our brain — do they change?”  Ulrich Mayr, psychology professor at the University of Oregon, said after conducting an overview assessment. “Can you in some way change the underlying hardware of our mental system, those things that go down as we age, the biological factors, all the wear and tear that basically makes up the gradual change?

“Here the assessment is very somber for cognitive interventions,” he concluded.

Even physical exercise has a more modest effect on cognition than was thought just a few years ago. Past research, including large, well-regarded studies, have claimed relatively strong links between exercise and improved memory and mental functioning. The effect, however, is small, Mayr said.

“Even from the same authors that produced the original, very promising work, we have new data that seems to be a little more pessimistic in outlook,” he said. “There’s quite a bit of variability across studies so it’s clearly something we have to investigate further.”

Still, he and the other scientists warned against abandoning the gym or outdoor fitness activities, given that exercise clearly has many confirmed health benefits, including improving mood and overall well being.

Ultimately, said Park, efforts to improve brain capacity and health should have two goals: “First, can we improve your life, and second, can we slow the rate at which your brain ages,” with possible implications for Alzheimer’s and dementia cases.

To record their perspective, the scientists have agreed to draw up a Consensus Statement, updating a similar document from a 2008 Stanford symposium. Aside from red-flagging the bold claims of commercial memory-training programs, the statement will point out that, although cognitive training can modestly affect brain health, the best solutions lie in sustained, enjoyable, daily-life efforts to stimulate the mind and to stay fit.