There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding brain games and their ability to improve the health of your memory. So Neurotrack got on the phone with London-based Clemens Aichholzer, Founder and CEO of MindX, to find out why he believes that cognitive training, like exercise and healthy eating, should be part of everyone’s regular health regimen.
NT: Why did you start MindX?
Clemens Aichholzer: In 2013 my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. After her diagnosis I spent a long time trying to understand the disease and how it affects the brain. Something few people are aware of is that Alzheimer’s Disease starts causing damage long before patients experience symptoms, so I wanted to see if there was anything that could be done to prevent it. I became very interested in neuroscience and cognitive psychology and discovered that the latest research shows that brain training can be used to help older people improve their reasoning and memory skills.
The research was so compelling, I wanted to take the brain games that were being used by scientists and make them available to consumers. That’s why I started MindX.
NT: How do brain games improve mental fitness?
Clemens Aichholzer: Your brain is an organ that’s constantly evolving. The things you do, the skills you learn, and the experiences you have in life all influence your brain and how it performs. This is down to something scientists call ‘neuroplasticity’, which is the brain’s ability to form and reorganize synaptic connections. Neuroplasticity is constantly taking place, but it’s a process we see very explicitly as the brain tries to repair itself following a brain injury, for example. It also happens when you learn a new skill, and brain games do just that — they teach your brain new skills.
Brain games differ from generic video games in that they target skills specifically attacked by neurodegenerative decline. They give your brain an opportunity to practice doing tasks which become harder as you age. For example, there are brain games that target your spatial acuity – your ability to orient yourself using your mind’s eye – which is particularly difficult for Alzheimer’s patients, who become disorientated very easily.
NT: How do you know that it translates to real life performance?
Clemens Aichholzer: The more frequently you perform an activity the easier it becomes. This is equally true for learning a musical instrument as it is for playing a video game. Interestingly, the learning process and novelty factor are important when it comes to stimulating your brain in the most effective way. Too much routine and your brain switches to ‘autopilot’, which is counter-productive in a cognitive training context.
As for transferability, science now shows that regularly playing certain brain games can translate into improved performance in other relevant areas. In a 2008 study, researchers at the University of Maryland found that young adults who played a game involving concentration and memory skills improved their fluid intelligence. Fluid intelligence is the ability to reason and solve new problems without using any knowledge you already have. Fluid intelligence generally decreases with age and is a big issue for people with Alzheimer’s Disease.
Another study from 2015 showed similar results in older adults, but the key was doing the brain games regularly: those who did brain training five times a week saw the most improvement.
NT: How do brain games compare to other ways of supporting brain health?
Clemens Aichholzer: Learning new skills like how to play a musical instrument, or how to speak a new language are also great ways to support your brain health. I always say that brain training should be just one part of an active and engaged lifestyle – on its own, cognitive training isn’t a silver bullet that’s going to prevent or delay Alzheimer’s.
However, brain games do have specific advantages; they’re low cost and widely accessible, they can target skills that people affected by cognitive decline struggle with, and they’re interactive, engaging and adjust to the player’s level. It’s really important that they’re engaging because people are unlikely to keep doing something they don’t enjoy – even if it benefits their health.
NT: There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding the efficacy of brain games. Why is that?
Clemens Aichholzer: Brain training is still a relatively new area of scientific research and as a result there are a lot of people who are rightly skeptical of the evidence. I’m equally skeptical – I try very hard to present an accurate picture of the benefits, and limitations, of brain training, as proven by science. And I’m working closely with neuroscientists at Harvard in the USA, and University College London in the UK, to evolve our products so that they reflect the latest in research. There are certainly companies out there making claims, which aren’t always born out by the evidence, and that’s brought a certain level of controversy to the industry.
At the moment there isn’t the evidence to say that brain games can reverse or prevent neurological disease like Alzheimer’s. But what we do have is a very encouraging body of research, which shows that as part of a brain healthy lifestyle, brain games can support cognitive function.