A mind is a terrible thing to waste.

This we all know.

Even those of us who may have temporarily lost ours.

But imagine if you could continue to expand your knowledge and cognitive ability without ever losing any of the knowledge and brain function you have now. Imagine if you could guarantee preventing the symptoms of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Dementia. Welcome to the hyperbolic world of Brain Training.

A recent story on the BBC had one of their journalists pitted against and octogenarian in Japan who spends 15 minutes a day ‘Brain Training’ under the supervision of Dr Ryuta Kawashima. Dr Kawashima is a neuroscientist whose work on brain mapping and ‘neuro strengthening’ is said to be so ground breaking that Nintendo turned him (and his research and work) into a computer game. Nintendo have sold over 19 million copies of the game. Amongst Neuro scientists and those in the medical field, when you are an animated character, you know you’ve made it.

The mental exercises he gives his elderly subjects at the Tohoku University’s Smart Ageing allows the good doctor to map the regions of the brain which control emotion, language, memorisation, and cognition.

His results are very good. His patients stay mentally more alert for longer in these areas than those who sit around NOT playing brain training games. However just as not all men are created equal, neither are mental exercises. There is equally enough research showing that a lengthy walk followed by a coffee and a chat with a friend will do just as much to light up our neuro pathways as will a bunch of timed logic puzzles on the internet. The issue is that the brain, whilst better understood now than at any other time, is still a bit of a mystery. We rely on neurotrophins to assist us in brain function.

Neurotrophins are a small class of proteins that are vital in neuronal development and function. How they work is quite remarkable and very technical, but essentially they serve to assist in creating the ‘pathways’ of thought, mental growth and memory. Without them, we cannot brain. In people suffering diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Huntington disease, these neurotrophins are diminished. This is a very basic explanation of a MUCH larger process, but you get the idea. Brain Training is supposed to help because it forces the body (well really the mind) to use and re-enforce these pathways. Unfortunately, a lot of what you will find on the internet and other places are fun and challenging mind games that show no medical evidence of improving the number or strength of neurotrophins. Of course, the old adage ‘use it or lose it’ applies here and there IS evidence that a daily dose of Sudoku or an hour writing, or reading or using your brain in a more challenging way than watching the tele, will improve things. Scientists now believe that an active body greatly assists in keeping the mind clear.

Not all brain activity exercises the brain in the same way. Activities that require you to use all your senses, break your routines and engage in novel experiences can create neurotrophins. Learning a new skill will- quite obviously- force your brain to be active. But then, so will bungee jumping. (Please do not do this if you think you might die of a heart attack. Death via heart attack will surly slow your brain function). Activities that involve planning ahead, like chess, stimulate the frontal lobe area of the brain. Ballroom dancing and basketball train short range spatial skills. Activities that combine intellectual and physical demands improve spatial and reasoning skills. Learning a new language or painting requires the coordinating of multiple regions of the brain. And then there’s sex, which is fun, and can be used as brain training as long as it’s not too boring.

If you feel like you cannot brain, or you are worried that the grey matter is steadily getting greyer, get active, go travelling, head to a pub quiz, take up crochet or origami, or yes, check out some brain training websites. A number are free and make you feel clever, even when you might not be and just took a lucky guess on the answer. And get more sex. That way, you can brain train with a friend.



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