Two approaches to brain training

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Two recent items related to what makes your brain work better. First, a study in Nature on the benefits of the current fad for “brain training”:

The largest trial to date of ‘brain-training’ computer games suggests that people who use the software to boost their mental skills are likely to be disappointed…

“There were absolutely no transfer effects” from the training tasks to more general tests of cognition, says Adrian Owen, a neuroscientist at the Medical Research Council (MRC) Cognition and Brian Sciences Unit in Cambridge, UK, who led the study. “I think the expectation that practising a broad range of cognitive tasks to get yourself smarter is completely unsupported.”

One major criticism of the study is that the largest effects of brain training are anticipated in adults over 60, at which point mental sharpness may already be slipping. Also, the total training time in the study averaged just four hours, which may not be enough to offer any benefits.

With that in mind, it was interesting to see this interview with Barbara Strauch, who has just written a book on the “grown-up” brain:

Q. Is there anything you can do to keep your brain healthy and improve the deficits, like memory problems?

A. There’s a lot of hype in this field in terms of brain improvement. I did set out to find out what actually works and what we know. What we do with our bodies has a huge impact on our brains. Our brains are more like our hearts in that everything you do for your heart is thought to be equally as good or better for your brain. Exercise is the best studied thing you can do to your brain. It increases brain volume, produces new baby brain cells in grownup brains. Even when our muscles contract, it produces growth chemicals. Using your body can help your brain.

I’m all in favour of undertaking challenging cognitive tasks to stay sharp (and for fun) — but aerobic exercise is still the best thing you can do for your brain.