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Does Brain Training Work?

Websites such as Luminosity.com make some bold promises about the effectiveness of computer-based brain-training programs. The site claims:

“Harness your brain’s neuroplasticity and train your way to a brighter life”
“Your brain’s abilities are unique. That’s why your Personalized Training Program adapts to fit your brain and your life goals.”
“Just 10 hours of Lumosity training can create drastic improvements. Track your own amazing progress with our sophisticated tools.”

Wow – in just 10 hours I can become smarter by playing fun video games personalized to my brain. I’m a huge fan of video games, and I would love to justify this hobby by saying that I’m training my brain while I play, but what does the scientific evidence have to say about such claims?

Not surprisingly, the published evidence is complex and mixed.

Before I summarize that evidence, let me describe the variables with which brain-training research must contend. First there are various target populations who likely will not respond in the same way to brain-training interventions. These include: healthy children, healthy young adults, healthy older adults, children with some form of cognitive impairment or developmental delay, adults with traumatic brain injury, older adults with mild cognitive impairment, and older adults with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.

Most studies do indeed pick a target population or two on which to focus. Each of these populations need to be considered separately when reviewing the literature.

The second important variable is the brain function that is being evaluated. There is no single measure of brain function or intelligence. Studies typically identify the following distinct functions:

Memory is the ability to encode, store, and recall information. Memory can be further divided into recognition, recall, verbal, visual, episodic, and working memory. Each type of memory has specific tasks associated with that memory function.

Attention is the ability to focus one’s perception on target visual or auditory stimuli and filter out unwanted distractions.

Executive function is ability to strategically plan one’s actions, abstraction, and cognitive flexibility – the ability to change strategy as needed. A classic test for executive function is trail-making, drawing a line from A-1-B-2, etc., which requires quickly switching from numbers to letters and back again.

Reaction time and processing speed are related functions that deal with how quickly someone can react to stimuli and process information, respectively.

Another very important variable in brain-training studies is generalizability – to what extend does training in one specific task increase performance on other tasks, and how far from the trained task does the effect extend? For example, does training in a visual memory task improve verbal memory, and does any memory training improve executive function?

Intervention types generally break down to three categories – classic training tasks, neuropsychological training (which involves multiple tasks at once), and video games.

Finally, studies need to account for the duration of any training effect. If there is an effect, how long does it last after the period of training ends?

The above variables must be considered in addition to all the generic factors that influence the rigor of any clinical study – number of subjects, randomization, effect size, statistical significance, proper blinding, adequate control group, accounting for multiple comparisons, drop-out rate if any, dose-response (in this case, duration and intensity of training) and replicability.

With all of these variables to account for it will take a great deal of research to understand the true effects of computer-based brain training of each type for various outcomes and on various populations. Not surprisingly, existing research is just scratching the surface of addressing all the potential questions regarding brain-training.

A 2012 systematic review by Kueider et. al. identified 151 computerized training studies published between 1984 and 2011 involving healthy older adults. That is not many studies, resulting in only a few studies for each intervention and target population. Of the 151 studies identified, only 38 met the review’s inclusion criteria.

For the full results of this review, I suggest you read the original article, which is available open-access at the link above. It’s not really possible to summarize the full results in less space than the review itself, so there is no reason to duplicate it here. To give an overview, however, in each category there were only a few studies, and most studies were relatively small. My overall impression, therefore, is that much more research needs to be done.

Studies generally found positive effects from brain-training (not surprising for small preliminary studies), but in most cases results were mixed with some positive and some negative studies. Brain-training was generally found to be as effective as traditional book and pencil training, but less labor intensive.

Effects were strongest for the task that was trained, with highly variable outcomes in terms of generalizability. Overall tasks generalized either not at all or only to closely related tasks, but not across the board or to very different tasks. For example, there seemed to be no cross-over effect between visual spacial cognitive function and verbal cognitive function.

In this review classic training tasks had the biggest effect on working memory, processing speed, and executive function. Neuropsychological tasks had the most improvement on memory and visuospacial ability. Video games had a positive impact on reaction time and processing speed.

A more recent 2013 review and meta-analysis of studies involving healthy children and adults concluded:

…that memory training programs appear to produce short-term, specific training effects that do not generalize. Possible limitations of the review (including age differences in the samples and the variety of different clinical conditions included) are noted. However, current findings cast doubt on both the clinical relevance of working memory training programs and their utility as methods of enhancing cognitive functioning in typically developing children and healthy adults.

A 2013 study of brain-training in older adults with mild cognitive impairment or dementia found no statistically significant difference in the treatment and control groups, but a tendency toward better performance in the treatment group, only for the more mildly affected subjects.

Conclusion

Computer-based brain-training is a promising intervention for maintaining and improving cognitive function in healthy and perhaps mildly impaired individuals, primarily because it is convenient, less labor intensive than traditional methods, and cost effective.

Existing research, however, is inadequate to rigorously address all of the variables of brain-training interventions. There do appear to be a few patterns in the existing research, however.

  • Brain-training is effective, whether designed as classic cognitive tasks, combined tasks, or video games.
  • Effects are mostly restricted to the specific tasks being trained and do not significantly generalize to other tasks or cognitive functions. Effects tend to be short lived, although evidence here is very mixed.
  • Computer-based brain-training does not appear to be significantly different in outcome from traditional pencil and paper-based training, but is less labor intensive.
  • I could find no published evidence to support any claims for individualized programs.

In short, brain-training does not seem to make you smarter, but will make you better at whatever task you perform. This can be simply a training effect – you will get better at anything you do repetitively. This is no more an effect of brain plasticity than any generic learning. Suggestions that such brain-training makes your brain function better in any way other than simply learning the task that is being practiced is not evidence-based.

Another way to look at all this is that the very concept of “brain-training” is probably flawed. It is useful as a marketing slogan, but does not seem to be based in reality. “Brain-training” is just a fancy term for good old-fashioned learning, but is meant to invoke an image of cutting edge neuroscience and brain plasticity which is not supported by evidence. It’s just learning.

The bottom-line recommendations I would make from existing data are this:

  • Engaging in various types of cognitively demanding tasks is probably a good thing.
  • Try to engage in novel and various different types of tasks. These do not have to be computer-based.
  • Find games that you genuinely find fun – don’t make it a chore, and don’t overdo it.
  • Don’t spend lots of money on fancy brain-training programs with dramatic claims.
  • Don’t believe the hype.

Finally, there is a clear need for further research. We need many large rigorous studies that control for multiple variables.

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health

Leave a Comment (22) ↓

22 thoughts on “Does Brain Training Work?

  1. goodnightirene says:

    I have done the NY Times Crossword Puzzle daily for over 30 years. The Saturday puzzle is still very hard and usually requires a Google or two to complete. I do them on paper and on the computer, but mostly the computer these days. I got better at them over the first few years, and quit doing the Monday and Tuesday, but the Saturday is still really hard. If my brain had become progressively more plastic over the last 30 years, wouldn’t the Saturday now be as easy as the Monday?

  2. windriven says:

    “Computer-based brain-training is a promising intervention for maintaining and improving cognitive function in healthy and perhaps mildly impaired individuals, primarily because it is convenient, less labor intensive than traditional methods, and cost effective.”

    And it beats the hooallies out of watching TV.

    I wonder how performance on cognitive tests would vary between similar populations who differ in their approaches to intellectual stimulation, for example readers versus mass market television viewers? My point is that those who self-select to participate in brain training exercises might perform differently on generalized cognitive measures than those who self-select to watch 4 hours of television per day.

    1. David Smith says:

      So, is choice important? I think it’s a great question, I think it’s got a simple answer, with deep implications. Choice is the most important factor in determining most things, and since active intelligence isn’t an accident, it must matter very incredibly. Unfortunately, the limiting factor is always resources, not will, whether it is time, or money, or something else, the will of a person to excel is not necessarily the defining factor. Brain training should have more affect on people who seek it, but everyone has limitations.

  3. windriven says:

    @goodnightirene

    ” If my brain had become progressively more plastic over the last 30 years, wouldn’t the Saturday now be as easy as the Monday?”

    Perhaps not. The better question would be whether or not you are more adept at solving the Saturday puzzle today than you were 5, 10 or 30 years ago. I suspect that you are.

    I have been on a sudoku craze for a while. When I began I couldn’t fathom the ‘evil’ level games. Today, I can’t be bothered to work anything less. Still, a good quality ‘evil’ sudoku takes me the better part of half an hour to complete. Moreover, on average I haven’t appreciably reduced the time it takes to solve an ‘evil’ puzzle for quite some time. Which brings me to quote acrostics…

  4. mousethatroared says:

    windriven “And it beats the hooallies out of watching TV.”

    huh – you haven’t seen our cable/streaming/TV/DVD/internet remote control set-up. I’m pretty sure daily use of that should be considered a cognitive problem solving exercise…and that’s just using the TV sound. Once my husband hooks up additional audio speakers, I’m pretty sure that my IQ will increase my 10 points. :)

  5. Some countries takes this quite seriously and even make brain games part of national school curriculum:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-13140772

  6. goodnightirene says:

    @windriven

    Sadly, the Saturday puzzle has remained difficult over the years–but I have got progressively better at acrostics! Don’t do Soduko–I’m numerically challenged.

  7. mousethatroared says:

    goodnightirene – Perhaps you have just reached the top (plateau) of your crossword puzzle learning curve. Most skills can not be continually improved upon, once one has reached mastery…that’s it. I’m guessing the Saturday puzzle is designed to challenge a person who has reached mastery.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Learning_curve

  8. kathy says:

    But Mouse, where does the top of the curve lie? What is mastery? I love playing Scrabble, and used to think I was pretty good … had a first-rate partner … could beat him at least sometimes. Then he left and I started playing online … hooked up with a woman in England who also has a PhD in music … and got severely gravelled, over and over. Now, two years later, I can beat her … sometimes.

    Point is, I had to up my game, when I was sure I was already playing to my limit.

  9. mousethatroared says:

    @Kathy – Good question. I don’t know. I assume it varied with the skill and the conditions that the skill is practiced in. If you hooked up with the best scrabble player in the world, do you think there would be continuous improvement until you could beat them all the time…or you would both continually improve until, I don’t know, the game exploded. :) or…?

    Maybe the Saturday Puzzles are not hard enough to challenge goodnightirene to a higher level.

    My sister is a demon scrabble player, by the way AND very competitive. I am, on the other hand, awful at (and dislike) word games as well as number games.

    I do like tangrams, though, I have no idea how good I am. I’m pretty sure I could get better if I played more.

  10. BillyJoe7 says:

    Kathy,

    I’m no good at crosswords, sudoku, or scrabble but, despite being an athleticophobe at school (usually found hiding out in the library), I later developed an interest in long distance running. In time, I decided to tackle the marathon. At first I thought completing a marathon would be my limit, but I surprised myself by completing it in under four hours. Over the following three years I progressively improved my time to finally get in just under 3:15. Although that’s more than an hour longer than the world record, no one actually believes by looking at me that I would have been capable of such a feat. In fact, I can hardly believe it myself. Every year I was convinced that I had reached my limit, and every year I managed to improve my limit. If marriage and kids hadn’t come along….

    As an irrelevant side note, my first girlfriend (at the ripe old age of 22!) was called Kathy – short for Kathleen – so I’ve always had a sort of fondness for that name :)

  11. Chris says:

    My brain training consists of reading non-fiction books (science, math, biographies), a variety of hobbies (sewing, turning 2-D material into 3-D objects; gardening, planning, planting, maintaining; cooking, chemistry and creatively using stuff from the garden), and finally debating people on blogs. ;-)

    I just really hate playing games. Especially bored games (the spelling is deliberate).

  12. kathy says:

    Mouse – agreed that there is an upper limit. What I’m querying is: how does one establish where it is? And to the rest of you bloggers, this IS relevant to the topic! What I’m getting at is: how does one quantify any mental skill? IQ figures don’t open the lock, but do other measurements either? So how does one know one has reached the limit?

    The only way I know to measure these capacities in myself is to match myself against someone who is clearly very good at the skill in question. Like running a horse in better and better grade races, until it don’t win no more.

    I supose measuring physical abilities are easier, provided they are simple skills (like marathon running, as BillyJoe mentions). Complex skills like cricket prowess are tough to impossible, but make for great arguments on line, like “Who is the best batsman of all time?” The Internet lines are soon red-hot with argument about questions like this, and though stats are quoted by the dozen, the argument is never quite settled. Good fun!

    Irrelevant side note to the irrelevant side note of BillieJoe7 – my name is Kathleen actually, though even my mother, who chose it for me, doesn’t use it! How’s that for logical? And I was also an athletophobe as a schoolkid, except for horseriding. I did play (half) a game of hockey once, but I was declared dangerous and, by common consent of the other 21 players and coach, was sent off before the game was over. Oh, and also I once came second in a game of tennis at my parents’ tennis club (prize, a box of peppermint creams – I still remember this detail!) … but I have to confess that there were only three competitors.

  13. Narad says:

    Which brings me to quote acrostics…

    Calculatrivia” from Games magazine wasn’t too shabby back in the day. They apparently upped the ante severely in 2003.

  14. BillyJoe7 says:

    kathy,

    I see you use the lower case ‘k’. Does that mean you are little as well. My Kathy was only 4’10″. And she had the cutist face and the most sparkling blue eyes you ever saw. She was also the shyest person you could ever meet…and so I never got to see what the rest of her looked like.

    “provided they are simple skills (like marathon running, as BillyJoe mentions)”

    That is exactly why long distance running appealed to me in the first place. I’m no good at complex sports. For example, I’ve never ever been able to connect properly with a golf ball except purely by accident. But, with running there is really only one technique – put one foot ahead of the other – although you do have to find your own style. And then there is only pacing, which just requires experience. Oh, and you do have to know when to rest and when to push and how far. After a couple of decades, I have managed to get sufficient experience to enable me to run along mountain trails without falling over. There is, perhaps, a little skill involved there.

  15. mousethatroared says:

    @Kathy – Yes, I think it’s an interesting question. There is a lot of testing on cognitive skills, memory and other skills…but I don’t know enough about it to discuss with any intelligence. :(

    From personal experience, I think one thing that is important is that test results are taken in context, the results are not considered in isolation and that one should not extrapolate the result of a test to mean more than the test is validate for.

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