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Does Your Brain Need a Few Reps at the Gym?

Some muscles are easier to flex. Athletes can hit the weight room to run a faster 40-yard dash, but what about engineers looking to improve their memory and problem-solving skills?

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Welcome to the brave new world of brain training, where companies such as Brainturk, Lumosity and Mindsparke offer specialized games and mental activities to “exercise” and enhance cognitive capacity and mental health. While the concept may sound more rooted in science fiction than reality, it’s based on real breakthroughs in neuroscience, namely the concept of neuroplasticity.

One Word: Plastic

The physiology of gray matter is still one of the most mysterious phenomena in natural science. It was long believed that brain cells develop in utero and remain essentially the same through adulthood — that our brains don’t change much over our lifetime. That’s no longer believed to be true.

“During most of the 20th century, the consensus among neuroscientists was that brain structure is relatively immutable after a critical period during early childhood,” says Kiran Kumar, founder of Brainturk. “This belief has been challenged by findings revealing that many aspects of the brain remain plastic even into adulthood.”

Kumar cited other research showing that supports the theory that “working memory can be increased in adults.”

In the face of a growing body of evidence suggesting that life experiences affect brain cell growth and development — the idea behind neuroplasticity — services such as Brainturk and Mindsparke ask the obvious question: If our brains can change, can we change them for the better?”

Stay tuned

Neuroplasticity is accepted science, but brain training is still a nascent industry that has sparked its share of debate. Though studies have shown that users get better at brain-training games over time, researchers are still looking at how that correlates to abilities in the real world — including job skills.

So far, anecdotal evidence is positive, but definitive proof never hurts when you’re trying to market the efficacy of a product. “There is a tendency for companies to say a certain measure represents X ability, but there may be insufficient, if any, research to support the assertion,” Dr. Sherry L. Willis, a University of Washington research professor told the New York Times.

A 2008 study by scientists from the University of Michigan and Bern found that 30 minutes a day of using training method boosted the working memory and fluid intelligence of participants by at least 40 percent more than a control group after just 19 days.

“This kind of jump in our thinking power can do wonders for our job performance,” says Martin Walker, an Oxford-trained scientist who founded MindSparke, which employs a similar training method in its program.

Walker, who calls the brain “the most valuable asset” in our careers, says brain training is a way to invest in your future.

Brainturk and Lumosity are currently working with researchers to study cognitive training. Brainturk is doing a clinical trial with a pharmaceutical company, while Luminosity is conducting research with institutions that include Harvard and Columbia.

Kumar acknowledges that Brainturk is exploring uncharted waters, but he sees a promising future for cognitive training as a means for personal — and professional — growth.

“The brain fitness industry is quite new and as per a market survey, it is set to grow in the upcoming years,” Kumar says. “We at Brainturk hope to provide tools to individuals as well as corporates to improve their overall mental health and gain peak performance at a very low cost using the latest technologies.”

Given the intense competition among businesses to attract the best and the brightest, is it only a matter of time before they start investing in their talent’s brain power?

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