We know that regular exercise and conditioning help us combat disease and health risks, improve our mood and promote better sleep, but in our quest for fitness, some experts say we may be neglecting one key muscle: the brain.
The brain can be trained just like any body part. Instead of lifting weights or doing wind sprints or crunches, a brain workout involves performing mental tasks on a computer, such as matching symbols, quickly typing words using a short prefix as a trigger or playing games that challenge response times or memory.
The goal for many brain athletes is to improve memory, focus attention more sharply or generally perform better in day-to-day mental activities. Others are aiming higher.
"There is increasing evidence that this might be helpful to people who are suffering from mild cognitive impairment to forestall the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, or alleviate cognitive deficits in psychotic disorders like schizophrenia," said Professor Bob Bilder, the Tennenbaum Family Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences in the David Geffen School of Medicine. He’s also chief of medical psychology-neuropsychology at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.
Brain training, or neurobics as some people like to call it, has been gaining more and more visibility lately through myriad products and services that have been introduced into the marketplace in recent years. Search it on Google and you’ll instantly get more than 1 million hits. Ranging in prices from less than $20 to $500 or more for certain technologies and computer programs, brain training means big business for some companies.
But does it work?
Bilder is trying to figure that out. And he has created UCLA’s first Brain Gym to help him do it.
Instead of treadmills, elliptical machines and weight benches, Bilder’s gym, located in Room C8-222 of the Semel institute, is comprised of two rows of computer workstations and staffed by "trainers" who can help visitors use the software programs.
"As a brain scientist and a neuropsychologist, I want people to have the same opportunities to train their brain and to exercise their hippocampus down here as they do at the Wooden Center to work their abs or gluts," he said.
Bilder said there is already evidence that brain training, especially for those who train in excess of 50 cumulative hours, can produce results. "We’ve discovered over the past few decades that what people have known about muscles in the body may also be much truer for the brain than anyone had really suspected. Brain cells do replicate, and they do a lot of remodeling after they get into their final positions — much more than was ever thought possible." Even training one’s brain for a few hours can produce some changes to how fluid flows within the brain, he said.
In addition, we’re learning more about how to better control the molecular switches and genetic controls in our brain regions using gene expression, he said.
"The structural genes we inherit from our parents are turned on and off in various ways and at various times during the course of development," Bilder explained. "We’re learning that inducing activity in certain cells in the body, and also in the brain, can alter the genetic instructions that are going to get processed. That changes the structure of the cells themselves, the way they connect with one another, and, ultimately, what they’re capable of doing."
What remains unclear, however, is how brain training applies to the real world, said Bilder.
Will it help you remember names or phone numbers better? How does it affect your problem-solving skills? Will it help you focus your concentration when performing tasks?
"The best data, so far, suggest that some effect will be maintained for months, but it looks like continued exercise of your brain may be needed to sustain the gains."
Bilder is hoping that the Brain Gym will help answer many of these questions and empower consumers to make smart decisions.
Members of the campus community are invited to be among the first to see the Brain Gym on Friday, April 26, from noon to 2 p.m. The open house is being held as part of the UCLA Healthy Campus Initiative’s Mind-Well Week, which runs April 22 to 28. There will be nearly 30 demonstrations, workshops and performances throughout the campus promoting wellness of mind, brain and spirit.
"We want our UCLA campus to be among the most informed when it comes to brain training technology," said Bilder.
The Brain Gym will initially be used as a space for visitors to come in and learn about the pros and cons of brain training and the science behind the products. They’ll also gain some hands-on experience using different software packages. Bilder is also interested in directing interested visitors to services that they may find helpful or beneficial.
Bilder also plans to use the Brain Gym as a research space where students and faculty will work to better understand the potential and limitations of brain training. "There is promise to these things, and I think we have an opportunity to do some good research and advance the science," he said.