Health & Grooming

The great brain train

Greater concentration, expanded memory, more creative problem solving… Jerome Burne reports on the latest attempts to turbo-charge the brain.

February 11 2010
Jerome Burne

Two phones going at once, inbox pinging like a supermarket checkout, a presentation to deliver in 10 minutes… If this sounds familiar, you may be praying for some kind of brain software upgrade. Something to make the mind sharper, the memory more capacious and the attention span longer.

Things that promise to do all that and more are out there, of course. Game consoles such as Nintendo DS have brain-training games. And 1.7m Americans have tried “Viagra for the brain”, as pharmaceutical stimulants have been dubbed. Then there’s neurofeedback, a system that teaches how to consciously change brainwaves to patterns linked with better performance.

They all involve a serious time commitment or the risk of nasty side-effects. Smart drugs, which claim to improve attention, memory and planning, are the option with the most academic clout. But they are only supposed to be given to people with recognised medical conditions – none is licensed for healthy adults who fancy a bit of cognitive enhancement. Online pharmacies and understanding doctors, however, mean that off-label prescribing is common. The brain-boosting drug of choice for professionals in the lecture hall and boardroom is Provigil (modafinil), a sort of second-generation amphetamine licensed for narcolepsy patients and night-shift workers. About 1.6m Americans have taken it off label.

Students seem to prefer Ritalin, officially given to hyperactive children with ADHD. According to one estimate, off-label Ritalin is used by a quarter of students on some US campuses, mainly to improve concentration.

But are such drugs really going to push up students’ exam results or allow an executive to perform flawlessly under sharp questioning from the board? Dr Rusiko Bourtchouladze, vice-president of Cognition and Discovery Research at PsychoGenics (a leading company in preclinical neurobiology), believes it is too early to talk about cognitive enhancement with drugs at all: “Such drugs that are really effective may not even arrive in our lifetime.”

Certainly, research into the effectiveness of turbo-charging brains shows it is not that impressive. People on amphetamines think they’re doing brilliantly on tests when they would have done as well on strong coffee. Ritalin does better. In healthy subjects it improves planning and spatial working memory, but not attention. Modafinil produces its best results in people with lower IQs; brighter people got little or no benefit in working memory. And then there are the side-effects. “People say cognitive enhancement is like improving vision by wearing glasses,” says James Swanson, a psychostimulant researcher at the University of California, Irvine. “They don’t understand the risks. If large numbers start using them, a small percentage are likely to become addicted, and some may see their mental performance decline.”

But the drugs companies won’t give up – a pill that really boosts mental functioning would be a blockbuster. There’s currently a buzz about a new generation of drugs based on trials with rats that have been genetically altered to fiddle with the biochemistry of their memory so they acquire information and store it more efficiently. But the results are unlikely to be attracting online shoppers any time soon. “Usually, there is a trade-off,” says Dr Alcino Silva, professor of neurobiology at the University of California, Los Angeles. “We had one rat with a great memory for simple things but he couldn’t learn anything complicated.”

So, just as no-pain-no-gain applies to honing the body, maybe training the brain requires something more demanding such as a specially designed computer game. In the US “neurobics” has been seized on as the next big thing. Dozens of online sites and even neighbourhood brain gyms have sprung up over the past few years, creating a market expected to be worth more than $1bn by 2015.

Until about a decade ago neuroscientists believed that after birth, no new brain cells grew. But, gradually, brain scanners revealed that the brain was far more dynamic, with new cells growing all the time. So it made sense that regular workouts on computer games that required attention, concentration or memory would improve those abilities.

But experts are sceptical, and last year the consumer magazine Which? concluded, “Much of the evidence supporting claims that brain training devices are effective was weak.” Then, there was a major breakthrough that made brain training even more plausible by overturning another “scientific impossibility” – that working memory couldn’t be permanently expanded. This is where all information is held when we’re multitasking. A team of researchers from Bern University reported that they had increased the brain’s capacity by training subjects on a challenging computer game that called for maximum use of working memory. Players had to remember an increasing number of bits of information – words and the order in which a number of squares lit up. The better they got, the more they had to remember, so they were constantly stretched. (You can download the game free at http://brainworkshop.sourceforge.net/.)

This is the brain-training equivalent of the four-minute mile, because working memory is at the heart of the abilities that executives want to improve: concentration, attention and problem solving. It’s also linked to fluid intelligence, which means being able to think creatively and come up with new ways of putting information together. Having a poor working memory is linked with poorer academic performance.

Brain training with computer games has also uncovered something that’s relevant to the executive juggling phones, e-mail, internet browsing and the rest. Rather than a sign of being wired into the digital age, multitasking may simply amount to someone doing too many things at once badly. Clifford Nass, a psychologist at Stanford University, tested high and low multitaskers on, among other tasks, the same program the Swiss scientists used to find how well they kept focused on information while being distracted. You might think that the high multitaskers, who regularly had five or six channels of information open at a time, would do best, but the results showed that these people are worse at working-memory management: “They were more susceptible to irrelevant stimuli,” says Nass “and less capable of blocking data that had become inconsequential from their memory.” They also performed more slowly when asked to switch quickly between tasks.

It’s early days yet. More research is needed to work out which games best improve which abilities and who benefits most. But Bern University’s tested working memory training is unlikely to do any harm and is supported by research that says it should make a difference.

Those made of the stuff needed to become an Olympic brain trainer – determination, a high tolerance of frustration and a willingness to put training before friends and family – might combine such games with neurofeedback. This is the least known of the three – still hard to find in the UK – but it could turn out to be the most effective. A session might start with a test – maybe numbers that have to be added or subtracted according to a few simple rules that get harder. Participants get increasingly flustered and start making mistakes. Attention narrows to the troublesome numbers and anxiety or fury grows.

The point of this exercise, though, is not to get better at it but to see how players react to stress and, more importantly, how they recover from it. For this, heart rate variability (HRV) is measured. Dr Z Bobich, who runs the Janus Clinic in Camberley, says, “This reveals how well you recover from stress. An irregular HRV means you will stay in an aroused state after a challenge for a long time. You don’t want that because it reduces your mental flexibility and physical fitness, so you won’t perform as well.”

What Bobich and other neurofeedback trainers offer is the chance to change the mental state – feelings of anxiety or anger – by learning to control how the body responds. Electrodes record whether a brain is in a relaxed or aroused state. It’s a way of seeing how it instinctively responds, so when the subject starts on a spiral of anger or anxiety in a real-life crisis they have the option to notice what is happening and to change it.

The elder stateman of using neurofeedback to enhance performance is Dr Louis Csoka, who developed it for cadets at the American military academy West Point. In 2005 he founded Apex Performance to help executives perform at peak levels under such stresses as constant pressure to deliver, competing demands for attention and rapidly changing skills requirements.

“I found that using neurofeedback allowed me to make changes to the way I worked that I didn’t believe were possible,” says Fred Rockwood, now retired but until recently CEO of Hillenbrand Industries. “I felt I could put myself into the state sports professionals describe as ‘in the zone’. You are right there, entirely focused on the task, but also relaxed. The first time I managed it I was negotiating a $100m acquisition merger and I got so clear about what I had to do.”

Dr David Lewis-Hodgson, director of research at MindLab International at the University of Sussex, says there is no doubt that neurofeedback works. He has demonstrated it to executives using a toy train that moves when they produce the relaxed brainwave state alpha: “What’s amusing is that the higher up in a company someone is the harder they found it to get the train going because they’re used to competing” – and it is very difficult to force yourself to relax at the same time as, for example, negotiating that $100m acquisition merger. But Lewis-Hodgson does point out that there are no proper double-blind tests of neurofeedback’s effectiveness and, while you can have clear outcomes in sport, where it’s used a lot, outcomes in business are harder to evaluate.

The idea of changing brainwaves, and so changing behaviour, has been taken to a new level by Pierre Balthazard, an associate professor at the Carey School of Business at Arizona State University. He believes it’s possible to record the brainwave patterns of successful leaders who’ve achieved peak performance and then learn to change our own brainwaves to match them. Other experts are sceptical, including Michael Gazzaniga, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who first researched left and right brain differences more than 40 years ago: “Not all brains function the same way. Nor do people with similar brain patterns necessarily act in similar ways.”

In the end it’s down to personal preferences. Whether you opt for a pill or a more challenging workout; whether you want something that is established and tested or a bit more off-piste. But one of them might just give you that edge.