Does playing the brain/memory game really help?

August 20, 2007

ANN ARBOR, Mich.---Brain and memory training programs are popular, but they don't work well for everyone, says a Universitiy of Michigan psychologist.

New research by Cindy Lustig, a U-M assistant professor of psychology, and colleague David Bissig, a U-M graduate now at Wayne State University---U-M's University Research Corridor alliance partner---reveals what can help make a training program successful, especially for those older adults who could use the most help. Their findings are published in the August issue of Psychological Science.

Programs claiming to "train your brain" are becoming increasingly popular as baby boomers head into their golden years, the researchers say. Even Nintendo has gotten into the game, with a program designed to lower your brain's "age" with repeated playing.

However, not all of these programs have been shown to work, they say. For those that do work, scientists' understanding of how and why they work is very limited. Worse yet, the older a person is and the less memory ability he or she has before training, the less likely that person is to show benefits.

"The bottom line is that in most memory training programs, the people who likely need training the most---those 80 and older and people with lower initial ability---improve the least," Lustig said.

The researchers, who conducted their studies at Lustig's U-M psychology lab, were able to show that the kinds of strategies people use are related to how much benefit they show from training. Accounting for those strategies can eliminate age and ability differences in training success.

Lustig and Bissig took a memory training program that has been used both with healthy older adults and people in the beginning stages of Alzheimer's disease, and asked what was different about people who showed big benefits from training versus those who showed little or no improvement.

The results of the study suggest that in order to improve memory, one needs not only to work hard, but work smart. People in their 60s and 70s used a strategy of spending most of their time on studying the materials and very little on the test, and showed large improvements over the testing sessions.

By contrast, most people in their 80s and older spent very little time studying and instead spent most of their time on the test. These people did not do well and showed very little improvement even after two weeks of training.

One of their conclusions: What matters for memory---and what seems to change as people get older---is not only how much time we spend on trying to remember something, but where we put our efforts.

"My lab is now working on training people of more advanced age and lower education to use the strategies that our most successful participants used, to see if we can boost the performance of these potentially at-risk groups," Lustig said. "A stitch in time saves nine---and studying at the right time just might save your mind."
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For more on Lustig and her work, visit: http://www.lsa.umich.edu/psych/people/directory/profiles/faculty/"uniquename=clustig

University of Michigan

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