Saturday, August 9, 2008

Keeping Gray Matter Sharp

Remember when it was enough to merely tease your brain with puzzles? No more. In the 21st century, it's all about brain training. Giving the ol' noggin a fierce workout. Pumping up the gray matter.

A growing variety of electronic products are targeting consumer anxiety over the aging mind. And we're buying what they're selling: The "Brain Age" game program alone has sold at least 17 million copies worldwide since its launch nearly three years ago in Japan.

The simple answer: While the science attached to many such games points to immediate stimulation of the brain, there's little if any evidence indicating long-term results.

"It's hard for anybody to say that a specific amount of exposure to any of the things on the market is going to benefit them many years down the line," says Marilyn S. Albert, a professor of neurology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She helped pioneer studies, dating back to the mid-1990s, on the maintenance of cognitive function.

"But there's no downside to being mentally active. Nobody thinks (brain games) are going to do anyone harm."

And that includes the old-fashioned, pencil-on-paper kind of brain teasers.

"I do crosswords a little bit, but my daughter does them more than I do. So does my mother -- and she's about 95," Albert says.

Hoping you'll be as sharp when you reach that age? Here's a look at the various types of products aiming to catch your mind's eye; any of them are bound to at least keep you busy in the meantime.

Among the handheld video games are:

Get smart: Since the monster success of "Brain Age," Nintendo's pocket-size, touch-screen DS system has gained a small stable of games aimed at brain-building. "Big Brain Academy" (also available in a version for the home Wii console), "Brain Age 2," "Flash Focus," "Your Word Coach" and other titles promise activity to keep your mind agile.

-- Upside: Great portability -- perfect for tucking into your carry-on bag when flying -- and sharp, engaging graphics. Hard to beat these for the fun factor. Based on your performance, the "Brain Age" games calculate -- yup -- the age of your brain; it probably won't surprise you that this varies from day to day.

-- Downside: The trouble lies in the daily "training" these games encourage: Familiarity breeds boredom.

-- Cost: about $120 for the DS Lite system, $20 to $30 for most game titles.

The Web-based applications include:

Get smart: If you have a PC with Internet access, you have all the equipment you'll need to access mental exercises at such sites as and Rather than buying a game system or software, you're paying a monthly or yearly subscription to access the multimedia puzzles and exercises.

-- Upside: Although not as playfully designed as the Nintendo DS titles, they're still fun. Typically, the sites offer a wider variety of games than individual video-game titles. You'll probably find your PC monitor screen easier to read than that of a tiny handheld device. Subscriptions can be given as gifts. Try them out online before paying anything.

-- Downside: When you're without Web access, you're without your training gear. And if your Internet connection is slow, you may get frustrated when switching between games.

-- Cost: Happy Neuron, $9.95 monthly, $99.95 yearly; Lumosity, $24.95 for a three-month membership, $79.95 for a one-year membership.

Computer software:

Get smart: A one-time purchase gets you some serious brain training, with games tailored for various cognitive functions. "MINDFIT" is specifically aimed at ages 45 and up; "Brain Fitness Program 2.0" was the overall winner of a recent Wall Street Journal product test.

-- Advantages: No need for an Internet connection; wide variety of stimulating exercises. Test games online before buying.

-- Disadvantages: Playing these feels a bit more like taking your medicine than enjoying a puzzle. They're not cheap.

-- Cost: "MindFit," $139 for download, $149 for CD-ROM,; "Brain Fitness Program 2.0," $395,

Puzzles in print:

Get smart: Look for the crossword puzzle in today's paper. If you're looking for a different style of brain-busters that you can curl up with at night, try "The Big Book of Brain Games: 1,000 PlayThinks of Art, Mathematics & Science," by Ivan Moscovich.

-- Advantages: Old-fashioned portability and no need for batteries or an Internet connection

-- Disadvantages: No motion or sound, unlike the computer-based products (though some people might find that an advantage)

Contact Jay Dedrick of the Rocky Mountain News at

Test your skills

Ready for a quick workout? Here are two mind puzzles from "The Big Book of Brain Games." The first is easy, rating 1 on a difficulty scale of 10; the second is trickier, with a 6 rating.

-- Ahmes' Puzzle: Seven houses each have seven cats. Each cat kills seven mice. Each of the mice, if alive, would have eaten seven ears of wheat. Each ear of wheat produces seven measures of flour.

How many measures of flour were saved by the cats?

-- Lottery Draw: If you draw the lucky ticket, you win the lottery jackpot. You are given the option to draw one ticket out of a box of 10, or draw 10 times out of a box of 100. Which choice gives you the better odds?


-- Ahmes' Puzzle: 16,807 measures of flour. That's 7 x 7 x 7 x 7 x 7. This puzzle, which comes from the ancient Egyptian "Rhind Papyrus," was written by the scribe Ahmes in 1850 B.C. Perhaps the world's oldest puzzle, it has inspired a great many variations over the thousands of years since its creation.

-- Lottery Draw: The choices offer identical odds. But in a psychological experiment, about four in 10 people preferred the single draw and held to this view even when the other choice was altered to provide 50 draws from the box of 100.