Could “Real Life” Brain Training Be the Answer?

As we’ve reported before, brain training exercises may not be very effective, but a recent study has shown that there may be hope. In fact, when researchers look closely, they find that brain exercises might improve reaction time and function in certain areas of the brain, like the prefrontal cortex—which is involved with planning complex thoughts, expressing personality and social behavior, and making decisions.

New Findings
In this new study, researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas studied older adults ages 56-71 to see if brain training exercises could enhance cognitive skills. They even compared the participants to those who were simply exercising regularly (which we know protects the brain). Instead of puzzles and other games that most brain training programs use, the scientists used integrated tasks that involve everyday engagements such as reading newspapers, discussing movies, or chatting about financial planning to train the participants for about three hours each week for 12 weeks. Their key finding? Older adults in the brain training program required less prefrontal cortex activation to complete cognitive tasks. The researchers could see these results using fMRI—a magnetic brain imaging technique that visualizes levels of oxygen in different brain areas. The subjects’ reaction time in cognitive tasks even decreased after training as compared to the exercise group. This basically means that cognitive processes were less taxing and their brains could work more efficiently to accomplish the same task.

Bottom Line
So what does this all mean? Well, overall there is not much good evidence that cognitive training helps prevent the decline in brain function that happens naturally as we age. But this study suggests that brain training over 12 weeks for three hours a week using everyday tasks could actually help, perhaps by decreasing the effort it takes your brain to perform tasks, and increasing your processing speed. Researchers still need to come up with a way to standardize these training techniques so that everyone can use them, and to make sure that their findings translate to improvement in everyday life tasks (a common criticism of brain training games). So, in the meantime, you can do other things that we know help the brain: exercise, eat a healthy diet, and challenge yourself to a mental workout.

(Feature photo from

Elizabeth Wilhoite

Elizabeth Wilhoite is an intern with the Healthy Aging Project, and a student in the Integrative Physiology Department at the University of Colorado Boulder.