Patti Pelosi has her mind on the brain.

Her mother suffered from Alzheimer's and, as Pelosi advances in years herself, she wants to ensure her own mind stays cerebrally sound. So she puts it through the paces.

"Because of my mom, I am always looking for things to challenge me and keep me thinking," said the retired Concord nurse. "My main MO is to keep learning things, read the papers, magazines, take up new crafts. I sew, I knit, I'm learning to play bridge, researching my ancestry. I also do some computer brain-training games on Lumosity. It's fun and a challenge.

"It's good to stretch your brain," she says. "But if you always forget your keys all the time -- I'm not sure any kind of brain games can help you with that."

And here we come to the heart of the gray matter. From playing online "brain games" that promise cognitive fitness to taking up a new language or merely working crossword puzzles -- do mental exercises do any good? Some studies indicate these kinds of activities can make you more proficient at the particular task under your focus, but the beneficial effects don't necessarily carry over into other aspects of life.

Yet emerging and encouraging evidence suggests the right kinds of mental engagement -- tasks and games designed to target specific areas of mental acuity -- may indeed help the old noggin' stay in shape.


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"That's the general challenge of the field, trying to understand how to build training approaches that have some degree of transfer into other abilities. And it's a challenge whether we can even measure those kinds of results in real life activities," says UC San Francisco neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley, whose study last fall with a carefully tailored three-dimensional driving game called NeuroRacer did, indeed, show training could help improve the capacity to multitask.

Laurie Mizera and a group of friends gather in the Concord, Calif., home of Patti Pelosi, right, to learn to play bridge Tuesday, April 1, 2014.
Laurie Mizera and a group of friends gather in the Concord, Calif., home of Patti Pelosi, right, to learn to play bridge Tuesday, April 1, 2014. (Patrick Tehan/Bay Area News Group)
What's more, the effect appeared to have benefits for participants in other memory and attention tasks unrelated to the game.

Also generating buzz on the mental horizon is a study published in the January issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, in which a brain training clinical trial with more than 2,800 participants averaging age 73 indicated lasting benefits from the training 10 years later. The study, supported by the National Institutes of Health, found training gains lasted to some degree for problem-solving and reaction-time tests, but researchers found no indication of improved memory.

More data needed

Most neurologists agree this kind of research is only in its infancy, and far more is needed. But they're cautiously optimistic.

"The 10-year study is certainly one of the more promising studies in the literature that's out there right now, supporting the theory behind mental engagement," says Victor Henderson, a Stanford University professor of neurology and neurological sciences. "But I don't know if any evidence shows if one kind of engaging activity is more beneficial than another, for instance computerized tasks versus crossword puzzles or learning a musical instrument."

Murali Doraiswamy, director of the neurocognitive disorders program at the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, also is encouraged by recent evidence, but is eager to see more data.

"What has not been proven is whether (brain training) can improve daily functioning skills or prevent onset of brain diseases, in all age groups," he says. "Most studies in this field have been in small samples. The field offers enormous promise, but is at an early stage of evidence gathering."

Indeed, the notion of cognitive training is coming under more scrutiny of late as more people turn to their computers and mobile devices to give their brains a workout.

Online brain games have become big business from subscription-based websites such as BrainHQ, Cogmed and Bay Area-based Lumosity and HAPPYneuron, each providing its own evidence to support claims of success using digital tools to make brain training fun.

Joni Shields gets help from Colleen Fehon as a group of friends gather in the Concord, Calif., home of Patti Pelosi to learn to play bridge Tuesday, April
Joni Shields gets help from Colleen Fehon as a group of friends gather in the Concord, Calif., home of Patti Pelosi to learn to play bridge Tuesday, April 1, 2014. (Patrick Tehan/Bay Area News Group)

A brain for the ages

Lumosity is likely the best known site, with frequent television ads and 50 million subscribers. For a $14.95 monthly membership, you can exercise your mind and track your progress on games like Raindrops, where math equations roll down the screen and you have to answer before they hit the bottom, or Eagle Eye that tests your attention as images fly by.

"Our product is based on the concept of neuroplasticity of the brain, that it can change and function in response to challenge," says Joe Hardy, vice president of research and development at Lumosity's Lumos Labs.

Hardy says there's no right or wrong time to start a brain workout.

"In different parts of your life there are different needs in terms of your cognition," he says. "A younger person might want to be extra sharp for work or sports. In middle age, you want to stay stimulated so as you do get older, you're advantaged. There's evidence around this idea of cognitive reserve -- if throughout your life you've been engaged in mentally challenging activities, you'll be benefited in older years."

Connie Chapman, 63, of Martinez, a retired forensics accountant who does bookkeeping part time, loves crossword puzzles and feels her work keeps her brain stimulated. She also plays online brain games.

"I know these activities, especially Lumosity, help keep me sharp," she says. "With the Raindrops game, I find I'm better at calculating that than I was a year ago. I think this is broader and more than just video games. I played Spider Solitaire for a long time, and it didn't make me much better at anything."

Stimulation or distraction?

Some wonder if, in today's world of scattered thinking -- checking your smartphone, emails, texting and more -- brain games are just another distraction?

"Those are very real modern-day concerns," Gazzaley says, who is in the process of writing a book called "The Distracted Mind." "So I'm on both sides of this, looking at how our brains function, how they interact with modern technologies."

Hardy says Lumosity's brain games require a tremendous amount of concentration and attention, "which makes them quite different from what might be considered multimedia distraction like phones ringing or emails," Hardy says. "With these, you're focused on one task for 15 minutes at a time. We hardly ever get that during a regular day."

Gregory John Burdett, 57, of Pleasant Hill, a tech consultant and jazz musician, says he recently looked into online brain games, but decided against them mainly because he's not convinced they make you better at anything other than playing the games.

Between his work and his study of musical theory and improvisation, he feels his brain is getting a good "stretching" as it is.

"If that isn't enough, then the brain games probably wouldn't help me much," he says. "I am not putting down the idea of brain exercise, though. My point is that brain games might not be the most effective way to do it."

Gazzaley, too, cautions that the science is just getting started, but hopes carefully designed games in the form of therapeutics will eventually be used in the clinical population, for children with autism or ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).

"This is the early days of all this, so there's going to be this very steep curve of over-enthusiasm and some people being careless with their claims," Gazzaley says. "What's happening now is, we're moving forward with careful control and validation, to determine what design elements are necessary to bring results."

Follow Angela Hill on Twitter.com/GiveEmHill.

Brain boot camp

Online brain "training" games are a booming business. Here are just a few of the popular ones:
BrainHQ, from Posit Science, offers memory, navigation, intelligence, attention, people skills and brain speed. https://brainhq.positscience.com
Cogmed, promises to help improve working memory, allowing you to focus better and resist distractions. www.cogmed.com
Dakim Brain Fitness, aimed at people 50 and older with nearly 100 exercise formats. www.dakim.com
Happy Neuron offers personalized brain training based on your cognitive profile. www.happy-neuron.com
Lumosity calls itself a "gym for your brain," focusing on five main areas: memory, attention, speed, flexibility and problem solving. www.lumosity.com