The notion that playing brain games on your computer can help prevent dementia is rooted in the research on neurogenesis and neuroplasticity.
Neurogenesis is the process whereby you can grow new brain cells at any age. Neuroplasticity is the process whereby you can grow new connections between neurons.
In theory, then, anything you do that (1) grows new brain cells, (2) increases the number of synapses between neurons, (3) strengthens cells and/or (4) protects them from harmful chemical interactions should all help slow down the process of cognitive aging. The recipe is pretty simple: bulk up your brain mass while minimizing the things that can cause it to atrophy.
But it’s not just a theory. The research supports this view.
Exercise grows new cells, increases synaptic connections and strengthens the quality of transmission of electric impulses from cell to cell by thickening the axon’s myelin sheath.
A brain healthy diet provides nutrients that support neurogenesis as well as antioxidants that help clean up neuron-killing chemical detritus (e.g., beta amyloid and tau) that are residuals of your body’s immune response (i.e., inflammation).
Sleep expels toxins that accumulate on a daily basis and also increases the strength of neuronal connections (synapses) which form long-term memories.
When we engage in cognitively challenging activities—especially new and novel tasks—we create more connections. That is why reading a book, learning to play an instrument or to speak a new language, and navigating around a different environment (e.g., traveling) are all brain healthy activities.
But what about playing computer games? The evidence is spotty, but it seems that there might be something there. Enough, anyway, to justify millions of dollars of new research to try to nail down just what it can and can not do.
In S2E29: Brain Training Is Hard Work! I discussed the intense effort I expended during my first week of working with the BrainHQ program. Now, 9 weeks later, I have some data I can report.
First, let me say that I over-did it. Playing these games for an hour each day was exhausting. However, it did allow me to quickly work my way through all 29 tasks covering 6 different functions: attention, brain speed, memory, people skills, intelligence and navigation. After 5 weeks, I dropped down to 30-minute daily workouts, which was much more manageable.
So how did I do?
The program provides you with a percentile ranking that shows how your performance compares to others in your same-age cohort. After 9 weeks, my scores have leveled off and I’m not seeing any more improvement. I placed at the 89th percentile overall among 71-year olds, with individual domain scores that range from the 86th to the 94th percentile.
What is valuable about this is that I now have a baseline measure of my mental status. Going forward, if I maintain my 89th percentile ranking relative to my same-age peers, it will mean that I am aging normally. If that number drops, it will mean that my cognitive decline is a cause for concern. If it goes up, it will be a cause for rejoicing as it will suggest that I am not experiencing the expected pace of cognitive decline.
That information has practical value, too. It appears that measurable and accelerating cognitive decline starts to appear about 6 years before a diagnosis of dementia is usually made. If I continue to play these games on a regular basis over the coming years, my scores should serve as an early warning system of any emerging cognitive problems.
The alternative, of course, is to get a full neuropsychological workup every year. Playing computer games is a lot cheaper and more fun, though.
The knock on using brain games to promote brain health is that, although you can get better at the games, your new learning does not generalize to everyday life and so it has no clinical or practical significance, even if your scores continue to improve.
This past Sunday, though, I actually had a real-life experience for which I directly attribute my success to one of the games I’ve been playing.
In this game, designed to enhance your speed of visual processing, the computer screen is divided into 8 pizza slice shaped segments. Images of 11 birds are then briefly flashed all at once around the periphery. One of the birds, however, is different from the rest. For example, it might have a white body instead of a rust-colored body, or a white wing instead of a black wing. The task is to click on the slice of the screen where the odd bird appeared.
The more I played this game, the better I got. After a while, I was stunned at how accurate I was with only the briefest glimpse of birds on the screen.
Which raises the logical question: So what?
I’ll tell you what! Last Sunday, we were having breakfast at the home of Sally’s son and daughter-in-law. Tammy mentioned that she had seen a bird fly away from their backyard bird house, but couldn’t tell if it was a blue jay or a bluebird.
As we stood around talking in the kitchen, out of the corner of my eye through the sliding glass doors I saw the flash of a bird in flight. It was only a flash of color that lasted less than a second, but I was able to process its shade of blue and size, realizing immediately that it was a bluebird.
Then we moved outside to eat breakfast. While we were seated around the table, Sally’s grandson Ryan (who recently graduated from college) brought out a bottle of champagne to make mimosas. When he popped the cork, it rocketed through a gap in a vine-covered fence and landed on the lawn beyond. I was the only one who saw where it went.
Pretty cool, eh?
OK. So it’s no big deal…but it does suggest that something good is happening inside my head thanks to my computer game playing.