Back in 2006, I was sitting at a dinner table with my husband, a friend of ours (to whom my husband was also a consultant), and a Scientist. The Scientist, who had been involved in creating a computer program to help children with learning disabilities (a program our friend was using in her Rehabilitation Center) was excitedly sharing with us that the same group that had created this program for children with learning disabilities had just come up with a new program to help re-stimulate the aging brain.
My maternal grandmother had succumbed to dementia. She had been living alone for many years and although she had been living in a small French town where she knew many people and she had had a livelihood as an artist, arthritis had set in, impeding her ability to go out and paint. My father, diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, also developed memory loss. My mother-in-law, a brilliant woman who was living with us at the time, in her 93rd year (albeit that is a nice old age) started to loose her mind. It is not comfortable watching someone who was such a part of life fade into nothingness. I suppose it will happen to many of us if something else does not get to us first, but…I digress. Back to the dinner.
Needless to say, when I heard about this program, my ears pricked up and I recognized that this would be the next big step in extending the aging process. I asked the Scientist how I could learn more about the program. Our friend agreed that this program could be incorporated into her business, but that I would remain an independent representative of the company providing the Brain Fitness Program, Posit Science.
I loved the program and I loved introducing it to people. Because it was the first of its kind, there were a lot of rough spots that the company kept tumbling over. Some of it was proving the claims they were making, but most of it had to do with “meeting those profits.” In the end, they never permitted their representatives to own a part of the company or even be a franchise, thus it could never develop into a business for me. At around the same time that I recognized this, the company decided to only market via the internet. Nevertheless, the concept is a sound one and since that time, other companies have developed their own programs.
Just recently, I came across an article that spoke about a Scientist who is using video games to the same effect. In reading the article in The New York Times, I see that some of the same arguments are being put forth that were constantly surrounding the Brain Fitness Program: what are the positive effects; what are the negative effects; what are the long-term effects. In spite of this, there seems to be positive responses for this new study:
The latest research was the product of a four-year $300,000 study done at the University of California, San Francisco. Neuroscientists there, led by Dr. Adam Gazzaley, worked with developers to create NeuroRacer, a relatively simple video game in which players drive and try to identify specific road signs that pop up on the screen, while ignoring other signs deemed irrelevant.
Studies have shown that multi-tasking abilities diminish with age, starting in one’s ’20′s! By the time people reach their ’60′s, the ability to multi-task has dropped by 64%.
But after the older adults trained at the game, they became more proficient than untrained people in their 20s. The performance levels were sustained for six months, even without additional training. Also, the older adults performed better at memory and attention tests outside the game.
“That is the most grabbing thing here,” Dr. Gazzaley said. “We transferred the benefits from inside the game to different cognitive abilities.”
In spite of these findings, the Scientists remain cautious. It is not just playing video games that will re-stimulate one’s aging attention span and Dr. Gazzaley emphasizes the need to remain within the confines of scientific rigor. His study does include a further validation of the effectiveness of video games:
The researchers created a second layer of proof by monitoring the brain waves of participants using electroencephalography. What they found was that in older participants, in their 60s to 80s, there were increases in a brain wave called theta, a low-level frequency associated with attention. When older subjects trained on the game, they showed increased bursts of theta, the very types of bursts seen regularly in people in their 20s.
“We made the activity in older adults’ prefrontal cortex look like the activity in younger adults’ prefrontal cortex,” said Dr. Gazzaley, referring to a part of the brain heavily involved with attention.
All of this sounds very positive to me. I still believe in the benefits of re-stimulating our neurons through interactive technology. But I also appreciate that the brain is a sensitive organ which we are still in the process of understanding and, thus, understand the Scientists’ caution. In the meanwhile, just in case, I will buy myself some video games…..
© Yvonne Behrens, M.Ed 2013