- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Here’s a look at a science-themed game and a Web site to help stimulate the noggin:

Brain Age, from Nintendo for Nintendo DS, rated E: content suitable for ages 13 and older, $19.99. Nintendo’s magical hand-held gaming system celebrates the work of Japanese neuroscientist Ryuta Kawashima by engaging owners in a series of hands-on exercises geared to giving their gray matter a rigorous workout.

Users turn their dual-screen DS system sideways to view the presentations as if reading a book. Mr. Kawashima makes an appearance (as a gregarious, disembodied talking head) to explain his theory that just as muscle mass decreases with age, so does brain function, and only by performing certain types of mental activities each day will we keep our minds young and in tiptop shape.

Tuning the prefrontal cortex involves using the DS’ microphone and touch screen to perform nine timed activities centered around simple reading and mathematical problem solving.

Once users save some personal data, they measure the current age of their brains using the Stroop Test. A series of colored words is flashed on both screens, and the user must say the color of the words. Speed and proficiency indicate a lower brain age. Users can test their age every day and watch the graphics and statistics for improvements as Mr. Kawashima encourages them.

That first-day testing point leads to a daily regime of activities that take about 10 minutes to complete and theoretically sharpen brain function. Exercises include making quick computations with addition, subtraction and multiplication by writing the answer on the touch screen; memorizing a sequence of numbers that pops up in boxes; and touching the boxes to review the sequences; remembering a series of words and writing them down on the touch screen; reading out loud; and counting syllables in passages from famous books.

The exercises easily convert to party games with up to four save files on one cartridge available to keep track of multiple brains or the option to send a demo version of an exercise to friends owning a DS, enabling up to 16 players to battle and see who can solve math problems the fastest.

The simulation even includes a robust version of Sudoku, the popular number puzzle that has pleasantly perplexed the world.

I cannot vouch whether Brain Age will keep brains sharper, but the challenges all were very stimulating and easily woke me out of a hump-day haze. Also, the title intelligently extends the functionality of the Nintendo DS to include even the non-gaming person in the family.

Children’s Hospital Boston gives amateur scientists the chance to try virtual experiments while learning about a variety of cutting-edge, biology-based topics in its interactive research Web site (www.childrenshospital.org/research).

Under the site’s Featured Research section, visitors can enter a Stem Cell Laboratory, where they will find a computer-generated culture of embryonic stem cells that reproduce before the visitors’ eyes through the process of mitosis.

Displayed from the perspective of a microscope eye on a petri dish, the simulation allows the scientist to add different coaxing agents, such as proteins, to transform the cells into specialized types. For example, adding endoderm precursors develops cells that have the potential to form the lungs, liver, pancreas and intestines, depending on the addition of other agents.

Scientists can create 16 cell types, which are mapped for viewing via a tree diagram, and as the lab produces cell types, they get plenty of text background on the latest research trends.

Next up in Featured Research, the interactive feature Tensegrity in a Cell tests the theory that living cells stabilize themselves by a balancing tension and compression as visitors manipulate a cell’s internal structural elements and view photos of real cells to understand this critical function.

Online scientists also get an introduction to the latest genetics trend, proteomics, or the study of protein complexity in cells, tissues and organisms. A user-controlled animated interactive reveals how researchers sequence and identify proteins.

Additionally, the site provides videos (QuickTime), color photographs and animations of events such as a tumor repelling blood vessel cells when an anti-cancer agent is introduced, the AIDS virus changing shape to enable it to enter a cell and a lung developing. It also has a module that contains archive audio and footage of the history of the polio vaccine.

Write to Joseph Szadkowski, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002; or send e-mail (jszadkowski@washingtontimes.com).

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