Catching the brain train


Until now, playing computer games had not been high on most m ums' list of priorities. But can a new wave of games really exercise your brain and make you look longer? Kate Holmquistputs one to the test

After 20 minutes of exercising my grey matter with Dr Kawashima's Brain Training, I'm looking up from the sofa and asking, "Do I look like Nicole Kidman yet?" Obviously not. And my brain age, Prof Ryuta Kawashima cheerfully informs me on our first acquaintance, is 75. My new Japanese neurologist friend tells me that I need to spend many more hours exercising my prefrontal cortex before I can reach the ideal brain age: 20.

The fad for brain training has taken off faster than you can say Botox - that other little trick beloved of the stars. And when you see Kidman in the ads, lying on a white sofa in a luxurious white living room in front of a roaring fire whispering flirtatiously to her ice-white DS, you want what she's having, thank you.

Without doubt, Nintendo has discovered the Mum market. And considering that Mum is probably the only person in the family without a games console, it makes sense. While children can spend hours playing a game, Nintendo's brain training is designed to be played in small chunks of a few minutes - which is as much leisure time as most mums have.

I borrowed my daughter's Nintendo DS Lite so I could try Brain Training and considering that I didn't even know how to work a Nintendo DS Lite before this, I'm managing to cope with the disappointment of having a mental age of 75. My children are already fans of Big Brain Academy, another Nintendo brain-training game, and when we played it together this week I learned that I'm definitely not smarter than a 10-year-old. Keep in mind that Dr Kawashima's Brain Training is suitable for people aged three-plus.

But the games appeal to the 10-year-old and even the three-year-old inside me. I'm completely addicted after only 24 hours exposure.

This is because playing the game and winning (however feebly) makes my brain release dopamine, which is basically the same chemically as heroin, says Ian Robertson, professor of psychology, at the school of psychology and Institute of Neuroscience, Trinity College Dublin and writer of a book on staying mentally agile. The brain training games are designed to create just enough stress to get your adrenalin going and when you get an answer right, the positive reinforcement of the dopamine guarantees that you want to do more.

Another aspect of getting hooked is that Dr Kawashima - a real person who appears as a cartoon character on the screen - promises you that if you stick with it, you too can reduce your brain age to 20.

IS THIS A SERIOUS claim, or a marketing ploy? Actually, the claim stands up, says Robertson. "Doing these exercises will increase activity in the frontal lobes, so the claim is justified." Any activity that challenges your brain, whether it's Nintendo brain training, learning Italian or taking up the cello, will make your brain work more efficiently and even help make up for the deterioration of age. However, "There is something special about these games in that the game upgrades itself with increasing difficulty as you improve your performance," he adds.

Brain training has become so popular - thanks in part to those TV ads featuring Nicole Kidman - that if you don't get your Nintendo DS Lite with Brain Training within the next two weeks, don't expect to find one this side of Christmas. That's according to Allen Wilson, commercial manager of Game, which has 13 stores in the Republic. And the Wii version of Nintendo is already sold out in Game with no deliveries due in until 2008.

"It's selling phenomenally well," says Wilson. Traditionally, computer games have been sold to children, young people and men over 30. The Nintendo DS Lite and Brain Training are different in that they've been taken up by adults aged 25-plus, especially women, who don't normally play computer games. The hand-held, touch-sensitive device has voice recognition, required for some of the brain training games. "You see people on the Dart and on the bus talking to their DS Lites," says Wilson.

Swearing at them too, one imagines, as one slip of the stylus can reduce your score and raise your brain age. And while you're talking to your DS, Dr Kawashima is talking to you, cajoling and teasing you along and even reminding you to go to bed early and eat healthy foods.

It may seem like the ultimate cyber-flattery, but Robertson believes that games are here to stay: "Mental stimulation is probably at least as important as physical exercise in keeping brains fit and capable, particularly in the 50s and above. Just as not all physical fitness programmes have been scientifically evaluated, so it is the case for mental stimulation programmes. But as long as they are enjoyable and kept in moderation, I would be quite positive about them. I think that in the future brain stimulation will become as important as body stimulation."

Alzheimer's disease cannot be prevented but can be allayed with brain training. "The factors that lead to Alzheimer's may still be present in the brain, but exercising the brain can prevent them from developing," says Robertson.

Don't think that playing Nintendo can substitute for other forms of mental stimulation however.

Robertson advises, "Most of the available commercial brain training software has limited or no evidence that that particular programme improves mental function, but they can probably be justified if a) they are enjoyable to do for the person in question; b) they don't substitute for other more 'natural' mental stimulation activities such as learning Italian or learning to play the guitar."

THE ADVANTAGE OF brain training software is that you don't have to schedule a class into your busy week or keep up the self-discipline of attending the class for months and years on end. "You can play a computer game while waiting for the potatoes to boil," says Robertson.

Another Nintendo game, Face Training, is already popular in Japan. The game instructs you on how to exercise your facial muscles for a more youthful expression and has an in-built camera that ensures you are doing it correctly. Also on the way is Sight Training, a game that aims to improve a player's sight.

With such emphasis on the self-improvement market, Nintendo seems to be aiming to bring parents and grandparents into the gaming fold. "The Nintendo brand has always been family oriented, says Wilson. "Parents feel safer with Nintendo because they know that their children won't get anything unsuitable. The most violent game for DS doesn't begin to compare to the violence of other games on the market."

Families can do brain training together, competing to see who can get the highest scores and reach the optimum brain age first, which makes the children guaranteed to win, unlike in some boardgames, where parents can cheat.