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In a previous blog we discussed neurogenesis, the growth of new neurons in the brain. This idea that as we age we lose brain cells and that there are ways to generate new neurons is relatively recent. In this blog we will explore one of the questions that interests researchers now: whether or not we can stimulate the brain to increase the rate at which new neurons are generated.
One line of research suggests that brain training programs can improve our ability to process information during everyday tasks and decelerate the rate at which we experience memory loss and other forms of cognitive decline with age.
But these claims are not without controversy. Other brain researchers cry foul, and point specifically to a lack of evidence. They argue that brain training is not able to produce the desired results.
Although some benefits have been found in several of the studies looking at brain training programs, one explanation -- known as the placebo effect -- states that the expectations of the research subjects influences the outcomes. For example, telling the subjects ahead of time that prior studies that used the same training techniques were successful in improving cognitive ability, influenced the results for those subjects. They were more likely to show improvement; in other words, these studies were biased.
The public relations arms of the companies that produce brain training programs argue that several studies involving randomized trials were able to address the placebo effect so that the results were not skewed.
Another issue with concluding that brain training programs are effective is the question of whether repeating a specific mental task and improving on it results in improvements on other mental tasks. That is, does a subject simply gets better at that one task, such as short-term ability to learn a pattern, or does the subject shows improvements on all tasks attempted.
Still another barrier is that the production of new neurons is very difficult to quantify. Measuring the actual number in the brain at any given time is impossible, due to the sheer quantity, which is in the billions. Objective improvements on specially designed cognitive tasks are often used as a way to observe gross changes. However, it is difficult to say whether or not improvement on any given exercise is actually due to an increase in total neurons. A more likely explanation is that they have changed the way in which their neurons are signaling to one another.
When more testing is completed and more evidence available, we will have more information not just about memory but also about the actual mechanisms of adaptations of the brain. This will reveal useful information beyond brain training games and into brain function and disease prevention and prophylaxis.
And while the latest research suggests that it is possible to boost the rate at which the brain accomplishes neurogenesis, the evidence is still unclear on whether or not brain training is a viable strategy. For now we suggest sticking to the things that we know are effective:
In the meantime, be careful about choosing products from brain game companies who have been taken to task by the Federal Trade Commission for their lack of proof behind their claims. Look instead for evidence from properly conducted randomized trials that account for all biases.