New fitness trend: Brain Training

CNN
Saturday, April 26, 2014 - 8:00pm

Whether you're a baseball player looking to improve your eyesight or a baby boomer hoping to prevent dementia, science wants you for a few brain training experiments.

Researchers are trying to develop ways to sharpen perceptual, reasoning and memory skills using computer programs and phone apps that challenge those capabilities.

A recent study, for example, used 19 college baseball players to test an app called UltimEyes. The app exercises the brain area that controls vision, the visual cortex. The players improved their vision by 31% on average; some even developed eyesight that tested better than 20/20.

Still, these are early stages for brain training. Many programs have been commercially released without any scientific evidence behind them, says Susanne Jaeggi, who leads the Working Memory and Plasticity Laboratory at the University of California, Irvine. There is no one game that's scientifically proven to boost brainpower for everyone.

"I don't think we will ever get one game that we can just throw at people, and it will work for everyone and make people smarter," Jaeggi says. But "it looks like people can get better in problem-solving and reasoning, under certain circumstances."

So far, the beneficial effects -- beyond getting good at one game -- are measurable but small. Her work has seen the most gains in people who begin at a disadvantage, such as older adults and children with attention problems.

In a children's game that Jaeggi works on, the user watches a frog jump between lily pads, and must press a key when the frog is on the pad it had been on just before. This gets harder as the user is asked for the frog's position two jumps prior, three jumps prior, etc.

This is called an "adaptive dual n-back" task, which involves deciding whether stimuli you are given match stimuli that were presented in a previous instance. It is aimed at improving reasoning and problem-solving abilities.

The principle can be found in games by Lumosity, Brain Fitness Pro and BrainTwister, according to a 2013 study.

It's not foolproof, however. While Jaeggi has published research showing that this kind of training does improve some intelligence measures, a separate 2013 study failed to confirm the benefits on the same kinds of tasks.

As for preventing dementia, no program has proven effective -- but researchers are still trying.

Editor's note: With our interactive project "Healing the Future," CNN is featuring 10 ideas and inventions that are revolutionizing health care -- from the operating table to the kitchen table. Check them all out at CNN.com/healingthefuture.

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