If you were in medical school just 20 years ago you might have been taught that the human brain was incapable of producing new brain cells. Doctors and brain scientists believed this because the nervous system did not seem capable of repairing itself and no new brain cells had ever been demonstrated.
New technologies that let us study the brain in more detail are changing many old beliefs about how the brain works, maintaining brain fitness and memory and what the brain is capable of. The brain is estimated to have 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections between neurons. However, what we still don’t know about the brain is considerable. Think of the brain as an entire universe that we are just beginning to journey into.
Brain Fitness: Neurogenesis and Brain Plasticity
When brain scientists use the word plasticity they don’t mean plastic—they are talking about the brain’s ability to reorganize itself and adapt to new knowledge and experience. Research over the past 20 years shows that this ability to change and adapt is not lost with age.
Neurogenesis is the brain’s ability to actually make new nerve cells called neurons. It was once thought that we were stuck with our original 100 billion (a number you might think would be enough!), but we now know we are making new neurons, even as we get older, in an area of the brain that is responsible for memory and learning. Here are a few brain facts from the recent research:
- Conditions that slow down neurogenesis, such as stress, also slow down the ability to learn.
- Exercise appears to increase neurogenesis and promotes learning.
- Learning itself promotes neurogenesis, and better learners keep more of their new neurons.
- Brain plasticity allows a constant growth of new connections between neurons.
- Some of these connections are lost if they are not frequently used, a process called synaptic pruning.
- Loss of the connection between nerve cells may be one of the causes for the short-term memory lapses experienced with age, the so-called "senior moments."
- Not generating enough new nerves cells may actually contribute to depression.
"Studies show that diverse, mentally stimulating tasks result in more brain cells, more robust connections among those cells, and a greater ability to bypass disease related trouble spots in the brain." —AARP Magazine
Use It or Lose It?
As we have learned more and more about the brain’s ability to add new connections and new neurons throughout life, a growing number of software companies have developed programs to help people find the right exercise for their brains. Using terms like "brain fitness," "brain cross-training" and "cognitive stimulation," these programs seek to help you remember more, prevent brain decline, strengthen your attention, and even help you drive better. The logic behind keeping your brain active certainly seems convincing.
Most of these brain game training programs are based on some solid brain science, and there are many studies to support the "use it or lose it" approach to brain health. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine even suggests that participating in brain stimulating activity may decrease your risk of Alzheimer’s disease. The question is whether these new software programs are any better than a stimulating conversation or a crossword puzzle. Here are some points to consider:
- A review of studies on brain training software programs published in the journal Alzheimer’s and Dementia, concluded that there was not enough evidence yet to say that these programs are very effective.
- A study done by the Mayo Clinic found that the Brain Fitness Program offered by Posit Science did improve memory in subjects using their program compared to a control group who watched educational programming.
- A large study published online in Nature found that although brain games increase your ability to do brain games, they do not result in significant improvement in other areas of brain functioning.
The jury may still be out, but there are plenty of smart people working on designing brain exercises that strengthen brain functions. Another thing to consider is that these programs are actually fun to use and unlike other types of “treatments," they are drug free. They also present a challenging alternative to crossword puzzles, Sudoku and Scrabble games and can be an enjoyable addition to your mix of diversions.
"As scientists gain more knowledge about the relationship between sensory perception, memory, and cognition, they are learning to design brain exercises that strengthen brain function." —Michael Merzenich, PhD, neuroscientist
Final Tips for Seniors and Caregivers
The science behind brain games is solid. Research supports the concept of "use it or lose it" for brain health. You might find them to be both fun and effective. Remember that in addition to brain fitness games, research shows that there are other things you can do to keep your brain functioning at a high level. Here are some healthy brain habits to practice:
- Get regular exercise
- Avoid and managing stress
- Get enough sleep
- Eat a healthy diet
- Spend time with friends and family
- Include creativity as an activity
Products to Consider
Brain training software is a growing market that targets seniors and baby boomers. There are new competitors in the market all the time, but the major manufacturers are: