To help create the best brain games for those over 50, researchers at Queen's University in Belfast came up with an ingenious idea: Offer a free, downloadable app of four mini brain games and ask participants to rank just how enjoyable, challenging or frustrating each game is to play.
People who download the iPhone app — dubbed Brain Jog — are asked to be part of the university's ongoing study into what over-50s are looking for in an ideal brain training app. Participation is optional. Those who agree are asked to rate their experience after playing each of the games.
It's the first step in a larger study looking at how effective these games are in preventing cognitive decline, says lead researcher Donal O'Brien.
For those who love brain puzzlers, the games are fun and free. And by offering them as an app, the Irish researchers gain access to a much wider pool of participants than they normally would. In other words, it's a win-win for social research as well as for puzzle fanatics.
O'Brien says the app has been downloaded to iPhones, iPods and iPads more than 1,000 times since it was introduced last week. "We are aiming to get as many as we can — between 5,000 and 10,000 would be ideal for this study," he wrote in an e-mail.
Brain Jog is the result of 18 months of work by researchers at the university's School of Music and Sonic Arts. O'Brien says researchers conducted trials with pilot versions of the games among focus groups to come up with four games that test spatial ability, memory, mathematical ability and verbal fluency.
After each game, users are asked to rate, on a scale of one to five, how they felt while playing the game. For example, questions ask how active, inspired, nervous or determined users felt.
Researchers will use the data to "bring us a step closer to creating an enjoyable puzzle game experience for those over 50," says O'Brien, adding, "All of this data is collected absolutely anonymously."
Part of the reason for the interest in brain-game development is the field's explosive growth over the past five years.
In 2005, Americans spent $5 million on games and puzzles to enhance so-called brain fitness. Last year that amount had jumped to $95 million, according to SharpBrains, a Washington, D.C., research firm specializing in the brain fitness market.
"Five years ago, this industry didn't even exist," says Alvaro Fernandez, CEO of SharpBrains. "It still has a lot of room to grow."
He calls using an app to conduct game research "a brilliant idea." He explains that the Irish researchers chose an iPhone app over an Internet website "because in Europe, especially for older adults, they don't own a computer, but they have a cellphone."
While some research has indicated that brain games only help people perform better on specific games and don't really improve overall cognitive functioning, O'Brien says that longer studies are needed.
"By following participants over long time periods will we know whether or not brain training can be effective in preventing or delaying the onset of cognitive decline or dementia? That is the question the next stage of our research hopes to answer."
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Candy Sagon writes about health and nutrition for the Bulletin.