Video Games and the Brain: Action, Strategy, and Pac-Man

Playing some video games can cause serious harm, while others might improve or restore skills, suggested three panelists at the American Association for the Advancement of Science this week.

“Not all games are created equal,” said Chandramallika Basak, a researcher at the University of Texas at Dallas. She and her colleagues study how memory and other skills change across our lifespan; part of that includes research investigating brain and cognitive effects of different games, especially as people get older.

Not everything in your brain declines with age (crystallized memory stays strong), but she’s looking for activities that could strengthen the ones that do, especially working memory (including how fast you can update current information) and task-switching (how fast you can switch when multitasking). Assuming there is a “functional threshold” for success at daily life, she wonders, “Can we keep this declining cognitive abilities stable for a few more years” above this threshold. “If I’m going to live to 90, I’d rather get it [dementia] at 89” as opposed to earlier, she said.

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AAAS’s Deborah Runkle moderates the Q&A session with, from left, Craig Anderson, Hilarie Cash, and Chandramallika Basak.

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Eye Health for Kids

Vision is not only crucial for children’s physical, cognitive, and social development, it can continue to affect health and happiness all through adulthood. A recent report about children’s vision and eye health revealed that more than one in five preschool-age children have a vision disorder, which can range from mild refractive errors (i.e. myopia—nearsightedness, hyperopia—farsightedness, astigmatism) to vision loss. While there is a lot being done to ensure a nationally-recognized system to promote eye health, it’s important to build awareness around the genetic and environmental factors that play a role in visual disorders.

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Test Your Knowledge: Brain Trivia

Do we really only use ten percent of our brains? Is it possible to be genuinely skilled at multitasking? With so much information out there about our brains, separating fact from fiction is not always an easy feat. Part of our mission at the Dana Foundation is to educate the public about the brain and its functions and potential; so we set out to do just that at this year’s NYC Regional Brain Bee.

We approached attendees at random and asked a set of brain-related trivia questions. With a mixed bag of responses, our goal was to not only debunk some common misconceptions, but share a few new facts as well:

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Lumosity Fined for Deceptive Advertising

cere_110114_article_featWhen we published the Cerebrum article,  “The Brain Games Conundrum: Does Cognitive Function Really Sharpen the Mind?”, and a follow-up Q&A with the authors in November 2014, three aspects of the article were crystal clear: I) Few topics in neuroscience evoke as much debate as brain game effectiveness. 2) Advertising has convinced tens of thousands of people to open their wallets and buy products. 3) The science surrounding the benefits of brain games is sketchy at best.

The article was in direct contrast to website claims by Lumosity, a major player in the brain-game business, with more than $1 billion a year in revenues and 60-million members. At the time, Lumosity’s website boasted of nine peer-reviewed studies, 36 university collaborators, and testimonials galore.

Now, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTA):

The creators and marketers of the Lumosity ‘brain training’ program have agreed to settle FTA charges alleging that they deceived consumers with unfounded claims that Lumosity games can help users perform better at work and in school, and reduce or delay cognitive impairment associated with age and other serious health conditions.

As part of the settlement, Lumos Labs, the company behind Lumosity, will pay $2 million in redress and will notify subscribers of the FTC action and provide them with an easy way to cancel their auto-renewal to avoid future billing.

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Dana Press Offers Cerebrum Anthology 2014

Cerebrum cover“What makes us human?” asks Barbara Culliton in the Foreword of the new Cerebrum: Emerging Ideas in Brain Science 2014, an anthology of the articles and book reviews featured each month during 2014 on the web. As the editor of Cerebrum, the online journal published by the Dana Foundation, I’m confident in saying that this year’s stories strive to answer that question from a neuroscience perspective.

The book’s twelve articles and five book reviews cover the science behind the much-hyped cognitive training and brain games industry; the latest in brain-machine interfaces, the role that socioeconomic status plays in brain development, and individual sex differences in the human brain. From understanding induced pluripotent stem cells to the causes and effects of spatial awareness, the latter written by last year’s Nobel prize winners Edvard and May-Britt Moser, the goal of Cerebrum is to take complex research and explain the importance in simple and understandable language.

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