Worried about your memory? • Several computer software programs promise to help by taking advantage of brain plasticity — the ability of the brain to rewire itself in response to challenges. By strengthening your ability to pay attention, to distinguish one sound from another, or to remember lists of numbers, these computerized exercises claim they can strengthen your mental abilities the way weight lifting strengthens your muscles. • But can a software program really get your brain to "pump iron?" • "I know it can have an impact," said Jerri Edwards, a professor in the School of Aging Studies at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "I've been involved in research on brain fitness programs for about 15 years, and I know it works." • But maybe not all the exercises work equally well, she adds. • Recently, Edwards led a team at USF that developed software shown to increase the driving prowess of elderly drivers by building their ability to pay attention. • "We found that older adults who used the software made fewer dangerous maneuvers on road," she said. • The exercises were adopted by Posit Science, the maker of the Brain Fitness program. • "They made it more entertaining," Edwards said. "Ours was pretty dry and boring. They now market it as a program called Insight." • Here's a rundown of software that claims to strengthen the aging brain.
Brain Fitness Program Classic/Insight
Maker: Posit Science
Price: $395 for a single user, $495 for two users.
Format: CD-ROMs that contain software you install on your computer, plus an instruction manual and a pair of headphones.
What's it like? Brain Fitness contains six fitness games that strengthen the user's ability to discriminate sounds. Insight contains five exercises that improve visual attention and multitasking, two abilities that tend to deteriorate with age.
Web site: www.positscience.com.
Impression: Both programs definitely strain the brain. Exercises rapidly become more difficult, which prevents boredom. Also, Posit Science has done more scientific research on the effectiveness of its products than other companies.
CogniFit Personal Coach/CogniFit MindFit
Price: Online subscription to Personal Coach costs $19.95 a month, $99.50 for six months, or $179 for one year. MindFit available for download from Internet for $139, or you can receive a CD-ROM containing the program for $149.
Format: Both games contain multiple training cycles; you're advised to do three 20-minute training sessions a week.
What's it like? Both games require an exhaustive (and exhausting) assessment of 14 cognitive areas, with retesting after 24 sessions. Games are attractive and engaging, although they don't provide enough instant feedback to gauge your progress while playing.
Web site: www.cognifit.com.
Impression: Both games provide a challenging workout, but the lag time in scoring seems to slow progress. However, the software monitors your performance and uses it to calibrate the difficulty of subsequent exercises.
Maker: HappyNeuron Inc.
Price: $89.95 for CD-ROM for downloading, or $9.95 a month, $99.95 per year for online membership.
Format: Contains multiple games that exercise each of five cognitive functions: memory, language, attention, executive function and visuo-spatial skills.
What's it like? You can select the level of difficulty of each game. One memory game that challenges you to remember the location of famous landmarks may include three landmarks (very easy) or a dozen (impossible).
Web site: www.happyneuron.com.
Impression: The games are fun, but it's hard to imagine how they do more for the brain than other puzzles and brain teasers.
Price: $19.99 for the game, $129.99 for player.
Format: Handheld device about the size of an iPhone contains a variety of math games, memory tests and brain teasers.
What's it like? The Nintendo DS player with a touch screen is light, compact, legible and more convenient than any game book. It also enables Wi-Fi hookups with other players.
Web site: www.brainage.com.
Impression: If money's no object, Brain Age2 will provide many hours of fun, especially since Nintendo keeps releasing new Brain Age software. Though not as challenging as other programs, it still beats watching TV.
Price: $9.95 per month or $79.95 per year for online subscription.
Format: Games exist online. You log into Web site with an ID and password.
What's it like? In one game, squares light up briefly in a grid. Then the grid rotates, and when it stops you must click on the squares that lit up. The graphics and animation are clean, clear and colorful, and the games are engaging if not addictive.
Web site: www.lumosity.com. Sign up and you can play games free for seven days.
Impression: While the games become increasingly difficult, the progression seems random rather than related to your own performance.
Maker: University of Bern, Switzerland
Price: $60 for download. (For $9.95 you can buy a back-up CD-ROM.)
What's it like? The Web site for BrainTwister offers neither trial games nor a video showing how they work. The software is tricky to download, and tech support is sluggish. The exercises are merciless, however, and certainly challenge working memory, which researchers have linked to IQ.
Web site: www.apn.psy.unibe.ch.
Impression: Though not well advertised, BrainTwister deserves attention because it evolved from research that demonstrated the exercises can produce measurable improvements in short-term memory, which deteriorates with age. The researchers themselves developed this commercial version.