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Powers of Concentration: Workouts for Your Brain

Computer programs for brain fitness can improve your memory and sharpness by stimulating the brain through problem solving and sensory processing.

My father, Tom, is a salesman. He sold milk off a truck in the tiny Florida town of Nokomis, and then he sold ads for the local radio station. When Tom retired, he turned to his real calling—pushing old-time Christian religion and strict readings of the U.S. Constitution via a dozen or so e-mails every day. Like any good salesman, he's stubborn and single-minded, but his pitches are leavened by love and humor. We get along pretty well.

Six years ago, Tom developed a heart problem and diabetes. Now 77, he sleeps a lot, doesn't leave the house much, and when he's tired it's hard to get his attention. His situation doesn't bother him, he says, because his next stop is heaven. But it bothers me to see him slip. It's the kind of thing that can keep me awake at night, even though there's no apparent urgency. After all, at 47, I, too, feel groggy more often. That's just how it is.

Or so I thought until, at a conference on aging last year, I heard doctors and scientists agree that older people stay sharper when they stimulate their brains with lots of socializing and problem solving. The good news: The brain is "a machine designed for continuous adaptation," said Gene Cohen, a psychiatrist who directs aging research at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. But the brain needs continuous challenge: "If a concert musician stops practicing, you can see her ability deteriorate within a month," said Michael Merzenich, a neuroscientist at the University of California-San Francisco. "If she keeps practicing, she can keep her ability until the end of her life."

The music analogy reminded me of what had been another of my father's passions: singing and playing the saxophone in a home-grown combo called the Aristocats. When the band did "Spanish Eyes," Tom, a compulsive entertainer, would put on a big sombrero, break out maracas, and launch into his best Al Martino impersonation. In fact, he was reluctant to check into the hospital for his heart condition in 1999 because it meant canceling a big New Year's Eve gig. But he did check in, was declared seriously ill and never picked up his sax again.

If Tom wouldn't practice music, I thought, maybe I could get him to start exercising his brain on a computer. As a matter of fact, I'd try it, too. Merzenich, the chief scientific officer of Posit Science Corp. of San Francisco, the manufacturer of the Brain Fitness Program—one of a growing number of software programs designed to exercise the brain—agreed to send one copy of the program to my dad and one to me at my home in Ithaca, N.Y. Both of us would complete 40 one-hour sessions, compare notes along the way, and gauge our progress.

The Brain Fitness Program draws on a decade or so of insights into the human brain's reaction to different stimuli, insights gathered using several tools, including one called functional MRI (fMRI). In fMRI, a person puts on special glasses before entering a magnetic resonance imaging machine. While the subject views pictures and solves problems displayed on the glasses, researchers observe how different types of stimuli change electrical activity and blood flow in areas of the brain.

"It is now possible to observe changes in brain activity in real time," says Richard Restak, M.D., the author of The Naked Brain: How the Emerging Neurosociety Is Changing How We Live, Work, and Love. "As a result, neuroscientists can monitor the brain's responses and observe how its performance improves with brain-enhancing exercises."

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