June 8, 2010

USA: Young Again—Bringing Back Brain Power

NORTHRIDGE, California / Northridge Magazine / Spring 2010 Edition

Young Again--Bringing Back Brain Power (Photo by Lee Choo)

. The center of attention at his 78th birthday party, a man comes to the end of a favorite joke and finds that his punch line is suddenly missing in action.
. Holding up the line at the check stand, an octogenarian wrestles with the figures in his checkbook.
. A Harvard professor, 69, blanks out on the word for “the thing” you use to turn eggs over in a pan.

This business of losing a mental step or two is of personal concern to the Baby Boomer/AARP demographic. It also is arousing the clinical interest of scientists like Cal State Northridge’s Giovanni Sosa MA ’04 (General Experimental Psychology). Sosa is research director of the Brain Age Project in psychology professor Luciana Laganá’s Adult Behavioral Medicine Laboratory at CSUN.

The Brain Age Project research program is documenting a sometimes dramatic reversal in its subjects’ mental aging process. Overseen by Laganá, it recalls the spirit of “Cocoon,” the 1985 movie yarn about older friends mysteriously made young again in heart and mind.

Working with a committed coterie of CSUN students, Sosa is recording scientific evidence that a popular video game called Brain Age is in fact shaving years off the mental ages of several dozen participants, mostly from the OneGeneration Senior Enrichment Center in Reseda, the Simi Valley Senior Center, the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center, and the San Fernando Valley community.

Giovanni Sosa, research director of the Brain Age Project in psychology professor Luciana Laganá's Adult Behavioral Medicine Laboratory at CSUN, with volunteer Betty Bronson. (Photo by Lee Choo)

“Sadly, even now there’s still a stigma attached to old age,” said Sosa, who is pursuing his doctorate in social psychology at Claremont Graduate University. “It’s viewed as a time lacking in productivity. Older people internalize that stigma.”

The game, he said, “is a powerful tool in helping people overcome that belief. It helps them reach the conclusion that ‘You know what? I’ve still got it.’ ”

Developed by Nintendo, Brain Age reportedly was inspired by Japanese neuroscientist Ryuta Kawashima’s work in the field. Employing a series of short math and reading activities as a way to ramp up the flow of blood to the prefrontal cortex, it presents a series of tests that determine the player’s so-called “brain age.”

Sosa became curious about how games marketed toward older people might be used as serious tools to help seniors confront mental decline. “But just because Brain Age was marketed for older people was not enough,” said Sosa. “There hadn’t been any empirical studies to determine its efficacy.”

Senior citizens participating in CSUN’s Brain Age Project are helping researchers measure improvement in mental acuity by playing a popular video game. (Photo by Lee Choo)

Plenty of research has been done on “the negative aspect of video games, the violent ones,” but not on games like Brain Age. “As far as I know,” he said, “we’re pioneering this kind of study.”

With Brain Age Project research coordinator Rian Davis, a CSUN graduate psychology major focusing on human factors and applied research, Sosa launched the project in fall 2007, assisted by grants from the university’s Research and Sponsored Grants program.

Participants—all novices to video game play—underwent a battery of assessments to measure memory, reaction time and other cognitive indices to give Sosa and Davis an overall picture of their mental abilities.

They also measured personality variables, such as how much power the seniors felt they had over their lives. “That was relevant to what we were doing because it is the empowered who most embrace technology,” Sosa said.

The team expects to spend at least another three years with the project; Davis cited a waiting list of more than 100 seniors eager to take part.

The initial recruitment was not a snap. In 2007, Davis combed the San Fernando Valley for senior citizen centers willing to sign on, and had to help seniors overcome fears about using technology they had ceded to the young.

Volunteers George Simon and Sandy Cates,
Brain Age games in hand, flank
CSUN researcher Giovanni Sosa. (Photo by Lee Choo)

Volunteers also had a serious time commitment: 15 hours a week for five weeks in each phase, using handheld Nintendos to perform tasks like unscrambling letters, creating touch screen pictures and counting currency.

Has it been worth it? Valencia resident Sandy Cates, 73, thinks so. “It has taught me to focus more, to really be able to concentrate and focus on the one thing I was doing, instead of letting my mind wander.”

The retired construction secretary also noticed improvement in judgment, comprehension and speed. “I would improve every week, and I felt really good about that.”

An administrative assistant specializing in estate and estate taxation before she retired, volunteer Leah Herzberg, 87, wanted to improve the speed of her mental recall. “It’s very annoying not to remember names when others remember yours,” said the Encino resident.

“For myself, I felt just participating in the project was worthwhile…It’s a challenge, and I think anything that’s a challenge does create an important stimulus.”

Sudoku puzzle fan Janet Roberts of Valley Glen, 76, worked for 20 years as a motion picture industry publicist and later as a hypnotherapist. “I got interested in the Brain Age Project because I’m growing older and feeling what it’s like to lose certain skills and abilities. I wanted to find out if it was something that would help me improve,” she said.

Though she experienced no radical transformation, Roberts was pleased with her results. On several games, she beat the scores of the young CSUN student with whom she was paired. “It was a lot of fun,” she said, “knowing I still had something going on there.”

Davis, who enjoys working with older people, has been the right person to handle the project’s logistical heavy lifting. As coordinator, she records all the research data, pairs up the project’s 90 seniors with the five or six CSUN research assistants who act as their coaches and facilitators, coordinates schedules that fluctuate from day to day and updates the participants on their status.

For her, the payoff is the feedback from the seniors. “Their self-esteem goes up,” Davis said. “They feel they can conquer things.”

Brain Age Project coordinator Rian Davis (far left) and researcher Giovanni Sosa work with volunteers Janet Roberts and Betty Bronson (far right). (Photo by Lee Choo)

The CSUN students have discovered the joys of working with their trainees, whom they meet for one-on-one sessions in libraries, coffee shops, parks, seniors’ homes, wherever the seniors choose.

Van Tran of Canoga Park, a junior majoring in psychology, has little contact with the older generation outside of his project work. “I like getting to know the seniors,” said Tran. “Sometimes they might be discouraged, so we encourage and explain the rules of the game; we act as support for them.”

Tran plans to work with the Brain Age project throughout his CSUN career so he can see how the study progresses. “I feel like I’ve…made a difference in their lives by being there,” he said.

Matthew Barrett ’09, who earned his B.A. in December and plans to do graduate work in the Psychology Department’s general experimental program, already had worked with children and young adults as part of his focus on social psychology and cognition. “So working with this new population has been a great experience,” he said, “especially in seeing the difference in their performances on tests. That lets me know how important this work is.”

Unanswered questions remain, Sosa said. The “sheer magnitude of the intervention effects on late-life cognition” is unknown, for example, as is how long the improved mental acuity can be sustained. In this type of research, “we’re still at the beginning.”

Still, the evidence that the video game-playing produces positive results is “encouraging,” say Sosa and Laganá. In timed tasks such as card-sorting by rank and color, for example, the Brain Age players are “statistically faster” than a non-playing control group.

But there is another big benefit. “It’s not just mental acuity, memory retention, reaction and how quickly information is processed,” said Sosa. “It’s about their psychological well being as a whole. When their minds are sharper, they feel better about themselves.”

“There is a need to empower older adults, maximizing their cognitive abilities and sense of control over the environment,” explained Laganá. “In our video game study, this is done in a way that is engaging and fun.”

— Brenda Roberts, Editor, Northridge Magazine

© California State University, Northridge