nos-trum. pronunciation: \nos'-trum\. noun. Etymology: Latin, neuter of noster our, ours.
1. a medicine of secret composition recommended by its preparer but usually without scientific proof of its effectiveness.
2. a usually questionable remedy or scheme.
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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Brain Training And Mental Fitness Programs Don't Work

There's widespread acceptance for the idea that doing brain exercises improves brain function.  There's now some hard data that says, "Not so fast."

Yesterday I posted an important review of MRSA, but it was heavy going.  I'm hoping that readers thought I made it easier to "get at" what the science was really saying.  One of the reasons Nostrums exists is to show that anybody who knows a few principles can get to the truth of a scientific claim; that by applying common sense to the original data, you can say "no way" to media distortion and advocacy misinformation.

Today, I'm backing off on the rigorous part--my brain needs to cool off.  Here's a fun item.

Upcoming in Nature is a data-intense article involving cognition and the use of games and internet software to keep people mentally capable.  These strategies are being promoted for use by the elderly, and for the prevention and treatment of dementias like Alzheimer's.

For the adventurous, the original article is here.

For the rest of us, the Wall Street Journal's Health Blog (Apr 21) has an overview.

The bottom line is, practicing "short-term memory, problem-solving, and visual-spatial skills" doesn't improve your ability to think and solve general problems; it just improves your ability to do the specific things you practiced.

And this makes sense:  Just because I practice driving a car doesn't necessarily help me fly a plane.

As you might imagine, the people who want to sell you their programs for brain fitness disagree with that assessment, and claim to have evidence that supports their product.  But the Nature article is the first peer-reviewed, well-controlled study to objectively evaluate the question.

So for now Brain Training Programs have the same validity as The Love Calculator (I'm not making this up--it really exists).

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