Can a Smart Phone App Really Exercise Your Brain?

The advertisements were tough to avoid, and they were memorable because because we really wanted to believe in the product. The smart phone game developer Lumos Labs blanketed the airwaves last year in a marketing blitz for their “Lumosity,” which they touted could enhance brain function, boost memory, improve cognition and ameliorate or reverse the effects of some mental illnesses. All by just “training” with their games for 10 to 15 minutes several times a week. All for a mere $14.95 a month or $299.95 for a lifetime membership.

Too bad it was a scam.

The FTC just hit Lumos Labs with a $50 million judgment for false advertising, stating in the press release that “Lumosity preyed on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline, suggesting their games could stave off memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease... but Lumosity simply did not have the science to back up its ads.”

Tough news for Lumos Labs, and a cruel disappointment for their more than 70 million subscribers, but what about that “science” part? Is there any chance on the horizon that we could exercise our brain like we do our biceps and heart muscle and stave off or prevent mental illness?

There is cautious optimism on this front within the neurological community, and it hinges on “neuroplasticity.” The term describes the relatively new scientific notion that our brains are not “hard-wired” for life. That is, our brain re-maps itself over the course of our time on earth, remodeling nerve cell connections in response to cues taken from trauma and other stimuli.

Much of the early research shows that there can be short-term improvement across a whole host of cognitive functions from a variety of regular gaming style stimuli, or “structured sensory input training.” Long-term improvements are still out of reach, and no program exists in any form that can prevent the onset of Alzheimer's Disease.

Once Alzheimer's has set in, however, there are targeted interventions that can offset, although not completely prevent, its spread. These procedures, developed by a team at the University of Miami, form the basis of a cognitive rehabilitation program that has helped early-stage Alzheimer's patients up through three months after the completion of the intervention.

Or you can take a walk with friends. Various studies have concluded that cognitive functions improve significantly through regular socialization and exercise, during every period of life. Ultimately, your brain is better off playing “Words with Friends” on your smart phone than any solo “brain boosting” games.