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The truth about brain games

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Brain Age (Nintendo)

It's a wonderful theory: Play a video game for a little while each day, and you'll slowly get smarter.

Unfortunately, theories don't always work out as planned.

Nintendo has made a fortune off of its Brain Age games, and even recently announced a new 3DS entry. But several scientists note that games, even ones that revolve around math and memory, are not a guaranteed fast track to becoming a member of Phi Beta Kappa.

The debate over the games started in 2005, when Nintendo released the first Brain Age game featuring Japanese neuroscientist Ryuta Kawashima, who also acts as the game's virtual host. Kawashima was an odd choice, since in 2001, he published a widely criticized study claiming that video games could, in fact, cause brain damage. Specifically, he argued that they could negatively impact brain development and affect people's ability to control their behavior.

His endorsement of Brain Age implied he had backed away from those theories.

Kawashima's involvement notwithstanding, the effectiveness of these games remains a field of contention in scientific circles, with both sides able to cite studies that back their cause. It's also one that many researchers have moved away from without settling on a clear answer, since the games aren't quite as red-hot as they used to be.

Scottish researchers were the first to weigh in on the effectiveness of brain games, enlisting 600 students at 32 schools to play Brain Age daily for 20 minutes. Over the course of the nine-week study, they found that students had improved concentration and behavior, finishing standardized tests faster than students who hadn't played the game.

As Nintendo enjoyed the victory lap that came with that study, French scientists threw water on the theory. The University of Rennes, Brittany, in fact, found that playing Brain Age made the memories of 10-year old children worse.

"As a game it's fine, but it is charlatanism to claim that it is a scientific test," said Alain Lieury, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Rennes. "There were few positive effects and they were weak. Dr Kawashima is one of a long list of dream merchants."

A year later, a U.K. study backed up the French findings.

The study had 11,000 people play brain-training games for a six-week period. Another group simply surfed the Web. When the two groups took a variety of tests, there was no evidence that the game-trained folks had any sort of upper hand.

"The results are clear," said Dr Adrian Owen, assistant director of Medical Research Council's Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge. "Statistically, there are no significant differences between the improvements seen in participants who played our brain training games, and those who just went on the Internet for the same length of time."

There's just as much confusion over whether these games slow the decline of a person's mental skills. Scientists do know that engaging in challenging mental activities and remaining physically active helps -- and that could bode well for the series' next installment, which includes an especially tasking segment that's dubbed "Devil Training".

We may have a more conclusive answer to the question sometime in 2013, though. North Carolina State University psychologists Anne McLaughlin and Jason Allaire are roughly three-quarters of the way through a four-year study into whether playing certain video games might help slow the effects of aging. The pair was awarded a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation in 2009.

Until those results come in, however, it's safe to say that you shouldn't pin your hopes for developing a photographic memory on a video game.

Sill, evidence does suggest that some non-brain related games could have other mental benefits. A study at the Gains Through Gaming Lab earlier this year found that World of Warcraft, of all games, seems to have a beneficial impact on the brains of older players. And in 2011, researchers at the University of Toronto found that playing Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault tended to make subjects more focused. And of course there's the case of 100 year-old gamer Kathleen Connell, who believes playing DS games has helped her stay mentally sharp.

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