Software a 'boot camp' for the brain

Lumosity develops games to promote the kind of neuroplasticity that boosts cognitive ability.

Mike Scanlon has a mixed bag of news for me.

First the bad part: Human brain function begins to erode starting at age 30. Great. I've been getting dumber for nearly five years.

"It's not something that's irreversible," Scanlon said in an indulgent, comforting tone. "It's a matter of kind of clearing off the rust."

Easy for him to say -- he's only 29.

Not only that, but he's trying to convince me that Lumosity, the Web-based "brain-training" software made by his company, Lumos Labs, is the answer.

Scanlon is the San Francisco startup's cofounder and head of scientific operations. He studied neuroscience as a graduate student at Stanford University, but left halfway through, feeling the ivory tower's walls closing in like a vise.

"The goal in academia is to publish a paper rather than get something out of the lab and into the public domain," he said. (I wonder briefly how this comment would play to the company's scientific advisory board, which is stocked with a small militia of neuroscience luminaries.)

In any event, Scanlon's "something" ended up being Lumosity. If you play the games over a period of time, your thinking can get sharper and quicker, no matter how old you are, the company claims.

While at Stanford, Scanlon picked up a thing or two, including a theory called neuroplasticity, which posits that a person's brain adapts in response to stimuli. Lumosity's games are engineered to promote the kind of neuroplasticity that boosts cognitive ability, according to the company.

Scanlon pointed to recent research conducted on London taxi drivers. Scientists at University College London scanned drivers' brains and found they had a bigger hippocampus -- a region associated with navigational faculties in birds and animals -- than other humans, according to a BBC report.

The research suggested that the drivers' brains grew as they worked on the job and got to know London's tangle of streets and byways, a voluminous body of information referred to as "The Knowledge."

Lumosity is somewhat less intimidating than traversing London streets. One of the first games I played showed a word stem, such as "eff," and asked me to complete as many words as possible while a clock ticked down. A jaunty animation depicted a row of water bubbles resting on the floor of a lake. Each successful completion pushed the bubbles toward the surface; more unusual words pushed them higher and garnered bigger scores.

On my first pass, I ended up with 510, struggling to come up with more than five or six words. (Hey, you come up with something besides effort, effortless, effusive and effective in a minute without a dictionary).

The games focus on improving brainpower-factors such as memory, attentiveness and processing speed. The Lumosity site tracks your progress, aggregating scores over time and providing analysis.

So far, the company hasn't seen a lot of use by businesses, but there are scattered examples. Traders at a Chicago investment firm were using it before they hit the floor each morning, and Lumosity has also made some deals with schools, which are using the software as a supplement to traditional curricula, according to Scanlon.

The site's user base is mostly between 20 and 40 years old and has "a lot of education," Scanlon said. "People already feel like they're pretty smart, but want to get better. They may not necessarily be getting dumber."

Was that a sidelong reference to me? I thought things were going pretty well: After a few more games, I had pulled together an overall score -- or "brain performance index" -- of about 850.

This is "above average," and scores will tend to increase over time as users continue playing, Scanlon said, inadvertently revealing the businessman behind the scientist.

That's because Lumosity offers a free trial, but it's only good for seven days; just enough time, perhaps, to neuroplasticize a few dead synapses but not to add more than a couple of IQ points.

But to be fair, Scanlon never brought up the question of making money off of Lumosity, except to speak confidently about the future. "I think we have a growing audience as opposed to a shrinking one," he said. "The combination of doing something fun and engaging and also good for you is compelling."

From my 49-year-old editor's point of view, Lumosity would be especially compelling if using it would lead to, say, an improved ability to write great endings to news stories and, specifically, this column. That's a good idea, but right now all I can think about is that she has 14 more years of eroded brain capacity than I have. It's time to play some more games.

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