When Stephen Weber saw an ad seeking participants to help determine whether online games could improve brain function, it was, well, a no-brainer.
The Drexel senior would get paid for what sounded to him like playing Nintendo. Maybe it could even help him remedy his weakness in math, he thought.
So he signed up for a University of Pennsylvania study on "the effects of Lumosity on brain activity and decision-making behavior."
There's much more at stake here than the fortunes of an industry whose revenue is expected to hit $6 billion a year by 2020. Or whether Weber can do math more easily in his head than using a calculator.
Studies on brain games have offered mixed results. Some are promising, but others indicate the games offer little more than recreation.
"There's some evidence that brain games can improve cognitive functions," says Caryn Lerman, professor of psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine and deputy director of Penn's Abramson Cancer Center.
But the more important question, she says, is "can we change the brain to change behavior?"
Lerman is one of two principal investigators in the $2 million study, financed by the National Cancer Institute. She and her coinvestigator, assistant psychology professor Joseph Kable, say the institute wants to see whether brain circuits that are active when we display restraint can be stimulated by brain games.
In other words, could brain games help with healthy behaviors such as proper diet and avoiding smoking - which explains the institute's interest.
The trial involves 200 adults ages 18 to 35, the range when adopting healthy behaviors does the most good. All are given a functional brain MRI to test areas such as working memory, sustained inhibition, and response inhibition.
Half the subjects are then asked to play Lumosity, a popular brain game, five times a week for 30 minutes. The other are given free video games not designed to stimulate the brain. A second brain MRI then follows.
"Our theory," Lerman says, "is that if you activate these higher brain networks that are involved in executive control, the brain will assert more top-down control over lower regions of the brain that drive people to these gratifying behaviors like [unhealthy] eating and smoking."
Answers are expected in a year or less.
"Based on extensive research," Lumosity's website states, the game "improves memory, attention, processing speed, and problem-solving skills so you can feel more confident in your abilities."
A consensus statement last year by 70 cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists found such claims highly questionable.
The group, assembled by the Stanford Center on Longevity and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, stated: "Claims promoting brain games are frequently exaggerated and at times misleading."
Practice a specific skill enough, and you will get better at it, the group said. But that doesn't mean "general and lasting improvements of mind and brain."
A Lumosity official asked that questions be submitted by e-mail but then declined to respond to a request for independent studies supporting the company's claims.
Arthur F. Kramer, director of the Beckman Institute for Science and Technology at the University of Illinois, was a signer of the consensus statement. He says that after decades of studies, there is no evidence brief interventions like brain games translate into lasting effects in the real world.
What does work, he says, is physical exercise such as running and walking.
Jason Chein, principal investigator at the Neurocognition Lab at Temple University, is more optimistic. A study using two groups of 20 Temple students in 2007-10 found memory training on a computerized program designed by the lab not only made the students better at playing the game, but also appeared to enhance discipline and reading comprehension.
Had he been asked, Chein said, he would not have signed the consensus statement. "It's too negative, and I'm not sure it really reflects the scientific consensus."
Still, if computerized brain games are proved to work, he said, "you'd have to figure out why, for whom, and under what circumstances. There's favorable evidence, but we have a lot of investigation to do."
Joseph Santos, a Drexel University sophomore in Lerman's study, says since playing Lumosity, he feels "my memory is improving. I remember things I used to forget. I've been doing somewhat better on exams. . . . My reactions are a little bit faster."
Researchers say it's common for test subjects to perceive improvements even if they aren't measurable. Weber, the Drexel senior in the study, wasn't sure whether the brain games had made him any sharper.
But neither Weber nor Santos will know for sure because research subjects generally don't get their individual results.
Dawn Mechanic-Hamilton, clinical director of the Cognitive Fitness Program at the University of Pennsylvania, says she has used a commercial brain game, Brain HQ, in her work with adults with mild cognitive impairment and has found it helpful in combination with classwork and individual coaching. But she doesn't see it as a magic bullet.
"If you're going to spend time doing other things that are cognitively challenging," she says, such as taking music lessons or learning a language, "then you shouldn't replace it with a computerized program."
On the other hand, she said, brain games are likely better for you than a few hours of TV watching - but even that's not clear.
"We just don't know a lot of stuff we need to," she said.
An April report from the Institute of Medicine puts brain games fairly low on the ladder of recommended ways to improve cognition or maintain abilities.
Kramer says the entire field is far too complex for any one definitive trial. Walter R. Boot, an assistant professor of psychology at Florida State University, estimates it may be a decade before psychologists can know for sure whether brain games can be effective and, if so, in what ways and for which populations.
Lerman hopes to bring the final answer a bit closer, partly through using MRI scans to measure brain function before and after the subjects have played Lumosity or standard video games.
"We know what parts of the brain and what circuits light up when people are doing these exercises," Lerman says.
"What we haven't tested is whether a program of 10 weeks changes the brain in a way that's sustainable and helps people change their behaviors."
According to the Institute of Medicine, the jury is still out on whether brain games improve cognitive health for people trying to stave off normal age-related declines.
In a recent report, "Cognitive Aging: Progress in Understanding and Opportunities for Action," the institute analyzed the best available evidence and came up with this prescription for
Staying socially and intellectually active.
Getting good sleep.
Keeping your heart healthy.
Hearing and vision loss.
Some medications, including antihistamines.