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Best Memory-Boosting Games

Happy Neuron

The game: This consists of a series of 28 different computer-game exercises focusing on a number of brain functions, including memory, attention, language, visual/spatial skills, and logic. In one, I have to rebuild a fancy medieval shield as fast as possible; others have me retrace my on-screen route through one of the world's great cities, or match animal sounds with the right photo. Suggested playtime: 20 minutes, three times a week.

The claim: Happy Neuron's developers, a team of French neuroscientists and computer engineers, say that cross training builds and maintains critical thinking skills.

The evidence: In a pilot study funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and carried out in Des Moines, IA, 10 people with memory problems showed "significant improvement in cognitive skills" after playing Happy Neuron three times a week for six months. But the volunteers also undertook other lifestyle changes — they exercised, went on a healthy diet, and engaged in lots of social interaction — so it's impossible to know for sure what caused the improvement.

Play-by-play: An online coach nudges me toward games that work weaker skills. For example, after viewing the medieval shield, I have to play a language game — alphabetizing a long list of words — before I get to choose the right colors, shapes, and designs to reconstruct the shield. Other games are surprisingly difficult: I can't match every animal sound with the correct photo in the deceptively cute Squeaking Mouse. (Who knew porcupines and lemurs sounded so much alike?)

Score: * * * 1/2

While I love the mix of games and the customized program that tracks my performance, I find the exercises frustrating, especially at the beginning. But someone who really likes computer games might enjoy these colorful, varied exercises.

Cost: Online subscription: $10 per month or $100 per year; free trial available (happy-neuron.com)

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