Sit! Roll Over! Can You Train Your Brain?

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What Is Cognitive Training?

Cognitive training (brain training) is anything that intentionally targets the mental functions of the brain. Think of it as exercise for the brain to make it stronger. Cognitive training is a field that is growing quickly as we attempt to reduce our risk for developing dementia and improve and increase our efficiency and functioning of our brain.

What Does It Involve?

Cognitive training includes a variety of exercises and methods.

Some cognitive training is provided online and consists of brain exercises that increase in difficulty as you master them. Other cognitive training is conducted in person, much like a personal trainer who is improving your physical fitness level. Other types of cognitive training include video games designed to increase your processing speed and response time.

Does Brain Training Improve Cognitive Function?

Does it work? While the type and length of cognitive training vary greatly and impact the outcome, it seems that, in general, the brain's ability improves with training, just like you might expect if you were exercising physically.

A comprehensive ten-year study was conducted and recently published in 2014. It was entitled the "Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE)" study and involved 2832 participants.

These participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups, with each group receiving 10 sessions of cognitive training targeting either the brain's processing speed, memory or ability to reason. There was also a control group that received no training. In addition, some of the participants in this study received additional booster sessions at 11 and 35 weeks after the initial training.

The results demonstrated that after the training sessions, the participants' ability in the specific area (speed, memory or reasoning) that they were trained in was significantly improved. They also reported less decline in the ability to independently perform activities of daily living (bathing, dressing, eating, etc.) than those who did not receive the brain training. In other words, the participants experienced benefits in both cognition and in practical daily functioning. Those who received the booster sessions displayed an even greater improvement in the cognitive area in which they were trained.

Of even more significance, the participants' cognitive ability remained at the improved level ten years after the study concluded. The only initial benefit that did not remain significant at ten years was the improvement in memory.

A second study conducted in 2013 involved 69 older adults with an average age of 82 years old. Some of the participants were provided computerized cognitive training through a program called  Dakim BrainFitness, and others who were on the waiting list for the training served as the control group.

The researchers found that all participants who completed at least 40 sessions, each lasting approximately 20-25 minutes, over a six-month period, demonstrated improved language skills, immediate memory and delayed memory. The research was conducted through the University of California Los Angelos (UCLA) and was partially funded by Dakin, the company that manufactures the brain training program they used.

Are there Risks Associated with Cognitive Training?

Although it might seem that there are only benefits related to cognitive training, according to one study, there could be one risk, depending on how you define "risk." This study found that cognitive training delayed the symptoms of mental impairment but if dementia did develop, the decline in memory and other cognitive functions appeared to accelerate. Some experts theorize that this may occur because the training developed cognitive reserve and thus bought time for them prior to diagnosis. This means that the person's brain may have been able to compensate for quite some time even though brain changes like atrophy were present, but eventually it became unable to do so and cognitive declines become more apparent.


The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. Volume 21, Issue 7 , Pp 655-663, July 2013. Effect of a Computerized Brain Exercise Program on Cognitive Performance in Older Adults.

The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. Volume 17, Issue 3 ,179-187, March 2009. Can Cognitive Exercise Prevent the Onset of Dementia? Systematic Review of Randomized Clinical Trials with Longitudinal Follow-up.

Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. Volume 62, Issue 1, pages 16–24, January 2014. Ten-Year Effects of the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly Cognitive Training Trial on Cognition and Everyday Functioning in Older Adults.

Journal of Gerontological Nursing. March 2009. Volume 35, Issue 3: 23-29. Cognitive Training for Early-Stage Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia.

Neurology. September 14, 2010 vol. 75 no. 11 990-996. Cognitive activity and the cognitive morbidity of Alzheimer disease.

PLoS One. 2013 May 1;8(5):e61624. A randomized controlled trial of cognitive training using a visual speed of processing intervention in middle aged and older adults.

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