Can you keep your brain from aging?

A special issue on neuroscience and neuroculture.
April 25 2007 8:55 PM

Train Your Brain

The new mania for neuroplasticity.

Click here for more from the Brains! special issue.

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But the recent wave of how-to literature inspired by the wonders of neuroplasticity has obviously been inspired as much by a perceived cultural need as by cut-and-dried scientific proof.In March, Newsweek ran a cover story about the benefits of exercise to the adult brain. The mania for Sudoku, which purports to keep the aging brain on its mental toes, has led to more than $250 million in revenue for the global Sudoku business over the past two years, according to the New York Times. And the appetite for Japanese-style "Brain Age" tests led Nintendo to develop one for the DS, its hand-held device; participants can calculate their brain age on a daily basis. This month's Men's Vogue has an article suggesting that such puzzles could make us smarter and even stave off Alzheimer's. Neuroplasticity certainly has capacious ramifications, but you could be forgiven for thinking that the mania for harnessing its supposed anti-aging benefits is just our latest form of magical thinking, invoked by baby boomers who've turned away from fussing over their children's brains to ward off their own eventual decline.

After all, the concept offers an almost too-apt, metaphoric expression of fears about the unmanageability of life in the Information Age: It promises that we can use the mind—our faculties of determination—to rewrite the "hard-wired" brain, overcoming both genetic determinism and the frazzling wear and tear of contemporary connected life. One of the most interesting studies showed that only voluntary exercise reshapes the brain, and Begley turns to studies of monks to argue that meditation leads them to have higher rates of compassion toward the fellow man—as evidenced by the increased "gamma signal" activity in their brains. With its emphasis on mindful self-improvement, then, neuroplasticity answers a contemporary frustration with the chaotic connectivity of daily life while implying thatwe can have our connection and sever it too, so to speak: Just stop e-mailing for a few days and practice meditation, before starting the cycle all over again. It's a low-cost promise of regeneration.

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Unfortunately, it is a promise that is almost certainly inflated. The notion of neuroplasticity as a life-altering "therapy" that might keep us on our mental toes into our 90s—as well as prime us for greater compassion toward our fellow man—does not rest on substantial, uncontested evidence. As Begley herself reported in the Wall Street Journal last spring, the effects of Brain Age-style games like Sudoku appear to be minimal in some respects. One study of elderly people (ranging in age from 65 to 94) found that while training in a particular task did help performance in that task, it did not improve cognitive function in other tasks, nor did it slow the participants' overall decline in cognitive function. More peculiarly, declines in function were the most extreme over time in those who had received training than those who had not. (Timothy Salthouse, who analyzed the study, told Begley this might reflect the fact that "if performance rises, it has farther to fall.") As Begley points out, many scientists now pooh-pooh the "use-it-or-lose-it" theory of mental functioning. Instead, they argue that it is "cognitive reserve" built up largely before the age of 30, not ongoing mental training, that benefits aging adults. That is, those 70-year-olds who were particularly smart 30-year-olds have more of a cushion to draw on than peers who were only average at 30 and therefore don't decline as far with age.

Be that as it may, the idea that a little mindful meditation could calm down the forgetful, buzzing frenzy of our brains is still an appealing one. Even if the science is less than solid, maybe the placebo effect will kick in; and in any case, my brain seems to enjoy its crossword-puzzle respites and its Sudoku vacations, the way my muscles enjoy a massage. Or so my mind is telling me. Seven-letter word for "memory loss," anyone?

Slate science editor Daniel Engber chatted at washingtonpost.com about the special issue on the brain.

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.

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