RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
A fair number of older Americans are worried about losing their memories, and a lot of companies are eager to help. They're selling computer programs that claim to rejuvenate aging brains through mental exercises. There hasn't been much scientific evidence to back up those claims, but that may be changing. Early results from a large study suggest that at least one brain training program actually works.
NPR's Jon Hamilton reports.
JON HAMILTON: The Posit Science Brain Fitness Program takes time and effort, and it doesn't promise miracles.
Dr. Elizabeth Zelinski from the University of Southern California says she tried the training herself before testing it on other people.
Dr. ELIZABETH ZELINSKI (University of Southern California): It's hard, and, you know, you get mad at yourself because you think I ought be able to do this. And you feel like, oh, I can get up to the next level. You get there, and then you last there for about 30 seconds.
HAMILTON: Zelinski led a study of more than 400 people 65 or older. The ones who completed 40 hours of brain fitness training performed significantly better on memory tests than a comparison group who spent 40 hours watching educational lectures.
After training, Zelinski says, a typical 75-year-old did as well on the tests as an untrained person 10 years younger. And the people who got training said it improved their daily lives.
Dr. ZELINSKI: It might mean a small difference in being able to remember your grocery list when you left the list home. You know, so you're in the store, and like, oh, what would I supposed to get? So they may remember several more items.
HAMILTON: Scientists already know about techniques to improve specific aspects of memory, like recalling a string of numbers. But this program appears to bolster a much wider range of memory tasks. The brain fitness program comes from Posit Science, a company whose founders include a prominent brain researcher in California. Zelinski works as a consultant for the company which funded the new study.
Dr. Henry Mahncke is the vice president for Research & Outcomes. He says the program takes an unusual approach. It uses sounds to improve memory.
Dr. HENRY MAHNCKE (Vice President, Research & Outcomes): What it's doing is it's improving the speed and accuracy of processing in your auditory system.
HAMILTON: For example, a user starts out identifying sounds that go up, like this.
(Soundbite of sound increasing in pitch)
HAMILTON: Or down, like this.
(Soundbite of sound decreasing in pitch)
HAMILTON: Easy, right? Then the sounds start coming in combinations.
(Soundbite of sound decreasing and increasing in pitch)
HAMILTON: And the sequences get shorter.
(Soundbite of sound decreasing and increasing in pitch, followed by bell ringing)
HAMILTON: Over time, people learn to identify shorter and shorter bursts of sound. Mahncke says that helps the brain do a better job processing information from the outside world.
Dr. MAHNCKE: This is really about almost, you know, cleaning out the pipe that feeds memory. So what comes into memory comes in stronger and better in the first place.
HAMILTON: Brain scientists say it's refreshing to see a company apply rigorous scientific testing to its brain training product.
Dr. BARRY GORDON (Neurology, Johns Hopkins University): To try it in hundreds of people in a controlled way is a major advance.
Dr. Barry Gordon is a professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Dr. GORDON: Studies like this will go a long way to help delineate what people can and can't do with their memories. And that's been sorely needed.
HAMILTON: But Dr. Matthew Shapiro, a neuroscientist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, says potential buyers of this program, which costs nearly $400 retail, need to be realistic.
Dr. MATTHEW SHAPIRO (Neuroscientist, Mount Sinai School of Medicine): To get any improvement, they'll have to really mobilize their effort and their attention. If they do that, they're likely to see an improvement in their abilities, but they shouldn't expect large changes.
HAMILTON: The new study was presented at the Gerontological Society of America meeting in San Francisco.
Jon Hamilton, NPR News.