Published Jan 1, 2007 8:00 AM

22. Mind Games

What: Exercising your brain to stave off memory loss

Who: Researchers Marian Diamond, Gary Small '73

Impact: It's hard to imagine a time when people believed that the brain was immutable and that, like a game of cards, you simply play out the hand you were dealt when it came to smarts, skills and memory. That's the small-minded thinking that greeted Marian Diamond, professor of anatomy and neuroanatomy at UC Berkeley, and a team of other Berkeley profs back in the 1960s when they presented data to colleagues showing that the brain grew with use and got smaller with disuse. But they kept at it. The idea took root in pop culture in the 1980s as the oldest of the baby boomers turned 40 and started thinking hard about memory loss. Enter Gary Small, UCLA professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences, director of the UCLA Center on Aging and a major figure in the popularization of the idea that memory games and brain exercises can help keep your memory and maybe even prevent Alzheimer's. Today, the Alzheimer's Association is working with the Centers for Disease Control on a national action plan to promote brain health. Crosswords are generally considered a mental workout. And while Diamond (who is married to UCLA Professor of Neurobiology and Psychiatry Arnold Scheibel) and Small won't take credit for the current Sudoku craze, they do agree the game's millions of players won't be sorry they stayed up late crunching numbers and stuffing them into that unforgiving grid.

Eureka moment: The Center on Aging began offering a memory training course in 2003 adapted from Small's research and taught by volunteers, and designed for "older adults." But the class was quickly crashed by boomers, young adults, even teenagers, and Small realized that brain workouts are not just for "the 70-year-old grandmother who forgets her lunch date, but also the soccer mom who forgets to pick up her kids." The "older adults" phrase was gone from the course title within months.

— Kristine Breese '86