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Merzenich and colleagues tested the program with 95 older people aged 63-94 who were living in retirement homes in California. According to research presented last week at the Society for Neurosciences meeting in Washington, DC, people who trained an hour a day for eight weeks significantly improved their scores on memory tests. And those who progressed to the most difficult levels showed the greatest improvements, with the majority of participants gaining the equivalent of ten neurocognitive years.

“It’s an encouraging finding,” says Linda Ercoli, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Neuropsychiatric Institute at UCLA. “I would love to read it when it comes out as a whole paper.”

Researchers don’t yet know how long the effects of the training last. But the Posit program is one example of how scientists are conceptualizing the aging brain differently. “We used to think that cognitive decline was global and inevitable,” says Ercoli. “Now we think cognition and aging is something you can intervene in…you can teach people to maximize their cognitive potential.”

The key question for Posit and other cognitive training programs is how well the specific training improves daily activities, such as shopping or driving. “The thing that eludes programs now is how do you train people in one area [such as working memory] and get improvement in another area [such as following conversations in a noisy room],” says Jeffrey Elias, a health science administrator at the National Institute on Aging in Bethesda, MD. Today, a typical training program focuses on memory tricks, such as mnemonics.*

The Posit program already shows some ability to generalize – participants improved memory in ways that weren’t used in training sessions. But Merzenich and colleagues plan to assess broader effects in the next round of testing. The scientists will also use brain imaging to analyze how the program changes brain function.

One potential drawback to such a training program is the amount of time and effort it takes to see a difference. Much like physical exercise and dieting, mental workouts require a healthy dose of discipline. “The potential is significant, but it takes a lot of self-motivation and willpower,” says Elias.

For those with enough drive to stick with the mental gymnastics, though, Posit will soon offer an entire brain gym. In addition the auditory program, the company is building four other tools to train different cognitive systems: vision, executive control, balance and mobility, and sensory-guided motor control.

* [Correction, Nov. 23, 2005: In the original version of this story, the word “mnemonics” was misspelled.]

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