Exercising the brain

Today’s New York Times contains a very good opinion piece about the benefits of physical exercise for maintaing and improving brain health, by Sandra Aamodt, editor-in-chief of Nature Neuroscience, and Sam Wong, an associate professor of molecular biology and neuroscience at Princeton.

There is good evidence that exercise can slow age-related cognitive decline. Specifically, it is known to improve the executive brain functions which control other cognitive processes, and which begin to decline in one’s 70s. Executive function is better in elderly people who have remained athletic throughout their lives than in others who were less active.

It is also known that environmental enrichment improves the mental function of experimental animals. For example, rats given toys or raised in a cage with other animals learn new tasks more easily than animals raised without toys or alone. These findings have direct implications for humans – a new study shows that socializing has positive effects on cognitive performance.

On the other hand, the evidence that brain training can slow age-related cognitive decline is lacking. Repetition of the types of tasks given in brain training exercises does improve one’s performance of those specific tasks, but does not necessarily lead to more general cognitive improvement.

In their article, Aamodt and Wong give short thrift to the hugely successful brain training industry. It is quickly – but democratically – dismissed in the second paragraph as being “inspired by”, rather than based on, real science. To maintain brain health, they advise joining a gym, going for a brisk walk or meeting friends.


3 thoughts on “Exercising the brain

  1. I think diet is as important as exercise. Plenty of fresh and raw foods keeps me, someone in her 50’s, much sharper and energetic. I’m undecided myself about brain training, especially rote exercises. I do think that cultivating your curiosity about the world and staying in learning mode helps keep your mind and memory toned up. I also like logic puzzles. Working in logic mode seems to help you think through your personal problems and come to the right solutions.
    Hey, Mo, I used one of those teacher interactives you linked to a few weeks back to teach my grandson the rock cycle today. Thanks!

  2. I question the points that Aamody and Wong make. I have been able to find plenty of research/abstracts that clearly indicate the efficacy of cognitive training. Not just training to task, but true cognitive change. Here are few:
    Ball K, Edwards JD, Ross LA. “The impact of speed of processing training on cognitive and everyday functions.” The Journals of Gerontology, Series B, Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences. 2007 June;62 Spec No 1:19-31.
    Mahncke HW, Bronstone A, Merzenich MM. “Brain plasticity and functional losses in the aged: scientific bases for a novel intervention” Progress in Brain Research. 2006;157:81-109.
    Wolinsky FD, Unverzaqt FW et al. “The ACTIVE cognitive training trial and health-related quality of life: protection that lasts for 5 years.” The Journals of Gerontology, Series A, Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences. 2006 Dec;71(12):1324-9.
    Those are just 3 I found with a quick search of PubMed. It seems to me, I could be wrong, that the authors haven’t done the proper research.

  3. Hi folks,
    I read the NY Times article and this post with interest. I am a scientist at Posit Science – we’re a startup company in San Francisco (founded by Dr. Michael Merzenich, a professor of neuroscience at UCSF). We’re developing brain-plasticity-based cognitive training programs designed to enhance memory, so this article was particularly relevant. The second half of the article was quite interesting – there’s a lot of compelling work going on about the relationship between physical exercise and cognitive fitness.
    But the first half of the article overlooked a lot of literature. Some from my group 🙂 and quite a bit from other groups, most notably Karlene Ball and the ACTIVE study. I’ve never seen all the articles in one place before, so I put them up at our web page – anyone who’s interested in the published work demonstrating that properly designed cognitive training programs can show generalized improvements to untrained functions can see http://www.positscience.com/trainingarticles/
    In addition, results from a very large study directly addressing this issue are being presented at the Gerontological Association of America in SF. People interested in this topic can see the study design at http://www.positscience.com/science/science_results/IMPACT/ and results will be forthcoming.

Comments are closed.