Miťrcoles 19 de Diciembre de 2007, Ip nļ 221

Itís never too late to grow a better brain
Por Marisa Duffy

Traditionally the domain of teenagers, students and a certain type of obsessive male, computer games are not generally associated with self-improvement. The stereotypical image of a gamer is of a lonely soul with twitching thumbs sitting in a darkened room for hours on end. While fans have always stressed the benefits for improving strategic thinking and reaction times, many of us have remained sceptical.

However, the issues of an ageing population coupled with the current obsession with self-improvement have proved fertile ground for brain-training games. Hand-held consoles are now marketing themselves as tools to improve brain functions and are targeting previously untapped, older markets.

One of the best-known is the Nintendo DS game More Brain Training from Doctor Kawashima: How Old Is Your Brain? - which boasts an advertising campaign fronted by Nicole Kidman. Part of a Japanese series of games, it aims to sharpen mental agility, focusing on the prefrontal cortex area of the brain. Designed by mental-imaging researcher and best-selling author Dr Ryuta Kawashima, it consists of a collection of mini-games which test memory, problem-solving, mathematical and language skills.

The UK-based manufacturer Flair Leisure also produces several hand-held brain trainers and cites one Dr Ryuta Kawashima as a supervisor. The latest product, the Brain Trainer Advanced, is just on the market and consists of five games and a daily test. Mobile-phone manufacturers are also getting in on the act and brain-training games can be purchased and downloaded at high-street phone shops.

Earlier this year, schoolchildren in Dundee took part in a 10-week study to improve maths and concentration. The 30 children from St Columba's primary school, all aged nine and 10, played Dr Kawashima's More Brain Training on a Nintendo console every morning for 15 minutes. Progress was compared to a school where 30 pupils (the same age and from a similar socio-economic background) used a method called Brain Gym - a set of physical exercises designed to increase brain activity and therefore learning - for three times a week over the 10-week assessment.

There was also a control group. All three groups were given a maths test at the start of the project and the same one again at the end. All had better scores after 10 weeks but the biggest improvement was in the Kawashima group, where the average score went up 10 points from 76/100 to 86/100. It was also noted that behaviour and concentration levels were improved and the children became more self-confident.

But what about older, more addled brains? Are these games really capable of reversing the deterioration of our minds? Three other guinea pigs and I each played a game every day for a week. Here is how we fared ...

Rebecca McQuillan played the Brain Trainer Advanced by Flair (rrp £29.99)
Real age: 34
Brain age over a week: 41, 35, 38, 23, 51, 34, 26
Explain yourself: "I started off trying to do it at the same time every day but the 51 was after a glass of wine while the 26 was fresh, bushy-tailed, first thing in the morning. I got the competitive bit between my teeth when it told me I was 51. What it made me realise was that if I had been doing it 10 years ago I would have been better at it."

Easy to use? "What was difficult was trying to find anywhere where you could see the screen properly. I tried it in daylight, with full light above me and with light on one side, and I still found it difficult to read the screen. In particular, the numbers were quite difficult to make out."

Did your brain feel the burn? "Everyone is quite frightened about dementia because everyone is potentially susceptible to it when they grow old. These games are a good thing if you are concerned about keeping your brain ticking over. You can improve your score even in one session by concentrating harder and that's quite heartening. I did feel as if I was exercising muscles that I haven't exercised for a long time. It reminded me of the feeling you get from learning French vocabulary, or the studying you do as a school pupil or university student that requires you to remember things."

Would you buy it? "It is addictive in the way that sudoku is addictive. There are several different games and because you want to get better and faster at them, they have quite a long shelf-life. I would consider buying it for my parents because they enjoy sudoku but I just don't think they could see the screen properly - I think that is quite a major issue."

Alex Buchanan also played the Brain Trainer Advanced
Real age: 67
Brain age over a week: 86, 81,73, 72, 73, 68, 58
Explain yourself: "I spent about 20 minutes playing the games, usually after my evening meal. It gets easier and easier as you do it and you get to know the set-up and know what to look out for."

Easy to use? "The screen is not all that hot. It's big enough, but the black characters against the fairly dark background make it hard to read. It's just not very clear, especially when you are going through the numbers. It was easy to confuse them - for example 15 and 16 looked almost identical. I had to go and sit directly under a light to see it properly. The volume wasn't very loud but after using it for a while, and probably concentrating more, I could hear it."

Did your brain feel the burn? "None of the games was impossible but the one I found most tricky was matching the alphabet with corresponding numbers. Once you got more than halfway through it was easy to lose your place, but then that's probably just me."

Would you buy it? "I think I'd get bored with it eventually. It's quite good to see your scores getting better, quite satisfying, but I think maybe after three or four weeks it might become too easy. Once you get to a certain level there wouldn't be the same incentive to carry on."

Marisa Duffy played More Brain Training from Dr Kawashima: How Old Is Your Brain? (£19.99) on the Nintendo DS Lite (£99.00)
Real age: 30
Brain age over a week: 47, 53, 38, 36, 35, 39, 29
Explain yourself: "My horror at my early scores really got the competitive juices going and that competitive element is what makes it addictive. You really need to concentrate but there is an element of luck involved because if you get randomly tested on the games you are good at you'll score better. I tried it after exercise and after a glass of wine but neither seemed to affect the result as much as tiredness. On the day when my official score was 39, I signed in under other names and got 36, 35 and 23."

Easy to use? "I liked using the pen as opposed to pressing buttons but, annoyingly, you could write the correct answer and the DS would misread it and mark you wrong. The screen is bright and clear, though, and the instructions are easy to follow. The fact you only do 10 minutes a day meant it didn't become too much of a chore. I actually enjoyed it."

Did your brain feel the burn? "Some games I found easy to do without really thinking, such as the game where you work out the correct change. Others I found really challenging, particularly the listening game when you had to decipher three words being spoken simultaneously. When I started I was shocked by how slow I had become at simple arithmetic. I could definitely feel the cogs turning."

Would you buy it? "If I already had a Nintendo DS I would definitely buy the brain-training game. Every so often another game is added to the package so there's plenty of variety. The DS itself is expensive, though, so you would really only buy it if you were definitely going to play other games on it."

Fraser Buchanan also played More Brain Training on the Nintendo
Real age: 30
Brain age over a week: 42, 47, 30, 34, 25, 30, 24
Explain yourself: "It was definitely more difficult when I was tired. A few of the games had twists in them but they are relatively easy, although I struggled more with the word-based ones. You find yourself making silly mistakes because you're trying to do them quickly."

Easy to use? "The DS is a fantastic piece of technology which has never really been used in this way. It doesn't feel fragile, it's got stereo sound which is very clear and loud, and you're not likely to scratch it because of the clam-shell design. Having the character of the doctor lead you through was a nice touch. The only annoying things were that it sometimes didn't recognise handwriting and the speech recognition was quite temperamental."

Did your brain feel the burn? "I didn't feel I was using my brain in an exceptionally different way, particularly during the mathematical games. The one where you calculate the correct change was the most familiar to real life but you could still make silly mistakes."

Would you buy it? "I've enjoyed using it over the week. If I had it for longer I'd do the tasks that I enjoyed more and try to get better at them. I would buy the hand-held console. Would I buy this game? While that's less likely, it would still be a good purchase for this device."

  13/12/2007. The Herald UK.