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PUMPING IRONY: The Brain-Training Scam

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sudoku

Short-term programs to improve cognitive function may do your aging cerebellum more harm than good.

It’s an article of faith here in Geezerville that the more you stimulate your gray matter, the less chance it’s going to shrivel up into a greasy lump of amyloid plaque and leave you routinely wondering where you left your car keys — or your car. This obsession with gratuitous cerebral activity has been a boon to the purveyors of all manner of brain games in recent years, but new research suggests that we might be doing our brains more harm than good.

Researchers at the University of Nottingham last week released the results of a study showing that too much brain stimulation can actually impair our memory and attention. It’s all about maintaining appropriate levels of a common inhibitory neurotransmitter called Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), according to lead study author Tobias Bast. When your GABA isn’t doing its job, your neurons go into overdrive, a process that has been linked to cognitive dysfunction.

“Traditionally, memory and attentional impairments in conditions like aging, Alzheimer’s disease, and schizophrenia have mainly been thought to be caused by reduced neural activity or damage in brain regions such as the prefrontal cortex or the hippocampus,” Bast explains in a statement released by the university. “However, more recent evidence shows that actually too much activity can be just as detrimental for memory and attention.”

Bast and his colleagues are not the first to challenge conventional wisdom about the efficacy of exercising the aging brain. A 2013 study out of the University of Texas at Dallas noted that the hype around cognitive-training programs is largely overblown. “Nearly all of these claims are, at best, overly optimistic and, at worst, blatant charlatanism,” study coauthor Denise Park, PhD, notes in Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience.

These strategies may be helpful in the case of stroke victims, whose brains have actually shut down, but their results among healthy adults tend to be temporary. Park suggests that any successful brain-training regimen needs to be focused on delaying rather than reversing age-related cognitive dysfunction, and it probably needs to be both ongoing and enjoyable.

“The evidence that one can improve volume of neural structures through training is relatively sparse. The limited data available suggest that gains that are realized from a sustained training program most likely need to be maintained with continued performance,” she argues. “It seems likely that it will be important for individuals to enjoy the tasks they are performing over the very long term so that the behavior can be sustained and gains maintained.”

I’m going to interpret this as good news for guys like me who are completely flummoxed by the simplest sudoku and haven’t even attempted a crossword puzzle since sometime in the late 1970s. What good can come from laboring through exercises that drive our brain cells to distraction? Besides, I like to assume that my day job — an enjoyable exercise that includes decluttering sentences and disassembling paragraphs — keeps my gray matter plenty busy.

If that’s not enough, there’s always sports trivia. Just the other day, for no apparent reason, I spent several minutes trying to recall the names of the teams that competed in last spring’s men’s college basketball Final Four. Defeated, I finally Googled it. No use overheating my neurons.

is Experience Life's deputy editor and resident geezer, who explores joys and challenges of aging well in his weekly columm, Pumping Irony.

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