Page last updated at 10:25 GMT, Tuesday, 29 April 2008 11:25 UK

Mental workout 'boosts the brain'

Sudoku in a paper
Don't worry if sudoku is not for you

Even the slower-witted among us can improve mental agility with a few daily brain teasers, a study suggests.

For those who hate crosswords but still fancy shining at work - fear not.

The US-Swiss team behind the research say computer-based tests, which challenge the individual according to ability, may be more effective.

Writing in the respected Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they found "significant improvements" in students who took part in their trial.

Some 35 volunteers were given daily exercises lasting around 25 minutes, while 35 further participants were spared the "brain boot camp".

The difference was most pronounced in those who had been slower to start with
Professor Walter Perrig
University of Bern

Tests included hearing letters of the alphabet, and recalling whether it was the same as one heard three steps earlier, and also being shown patterned squares and asked to match them with ones which had appeared previously.

The better one did, the harder it became, but when mistakes were made, the computer stopped being so demanding.

The exercises were repeated in some cases daily for nearly three weeks, and the participants' abilities then compared with those who had not been subjected to the tests, as well as performance before the tests began.

When confronted with a series of problems unrelated to the computer tasks, those who had been tested performed better than their untested contemporaries

"The difference was most pronounced in those who had been slower to start with, but the mental ability of everyone who had taken part improved," said Professor Walter Perrig of the University of Bern, who carried out the study with colleagues from the University of Michigan.

Keep Fit

Those who produce computer-based brain exercises have long made claims for their efficacy, but not many scientific studies have been carried out to back up the assertion that they improve mental agility.


Image from Picasso game on MindFit

Picasso aims to train visual memory. Users have a few seconds to memorise the right-hand design.

Image from Picasso game on MindFit

After part of the design disappears, shapes are picked from the left to fill empty squares.

Image from Picasso game on MindFit

The mouse is used to pick up one of the squares on the left, indicated here by its lighter shade.

Image from Picasso game on MindFit

The chosen square is dropped into one of the empty squares. It is accepted if it is correct.

Image from Picasso game on MindFit

The process is then repeated until the empty squares are correctly filled in as little time as possible.

Image from Picasso game on MindFit

MindFit's creators compare this kind of brain exercise to a physical workout in the gym.

Image from Picasso game on MindFit

A percentage score is given and can be stored for future comparison.

1 of 5

However one of Britain's best-known scientists, Baroness Susan Greenfield, has recently thrown her weight behind one of the systems available, MindFit.

"There is evidence that such stimulation prompts brain cells to start branching out and form new connections with other cells," she said.

But regular endeavour appears to be key.

"It's the same in sports," said Dr Susanne Jaeggi, one of the researchers involved in the US-Swiss trial.

"You cannot expect to get better in football if you merely run around a little bit."

Mind games
06 Sep 07 |  Magazine

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