September 4, 2018
Written by: Sarah Reitz
If you want to improve your cardiovascular system, you should exercise your heart by performing aerobic activities, like running or dancing, regularly. Similarly, if you want to strengthen your arms, lifting weights or doing pushups will help to build muscle. But what if you want to improve your memory, focus, or problem-solving abilities? Just like exercising muscles to improve strength, is there a way to exercise the brain to improve cognition? Companies behind popular brain training games, like Lumosity and BrainHQ, would say yes.
Computerized cognitive training (CCT), or brain training games, first gained popularity in the early 2000s, with claims that playing these games on a computer or phone for just an hour or so a week could help unlock the full potential of the brain. Some specific promises include: “2x faster visual processing speed”, “reversal of age-related slowing”, and protection against mild cognitive impairment, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease1. Protection against Alzheimer’s by playing fun games for only an hour a week? Claims like these helped brain training explode into an industry worth over $1 billion dollars, with consumers spending $715 million on these games in 20131. With phrases like “developed by top neuroscientists” used to advertise many CCT games, many consumers assume that these products have been rigorously tested and shown to deliver on the promises of improved cognition. But what does the science actually say?
The claims made by CCT companies have divided neuroscientists for almost as long as these companies have been around. In 2014, the Stanford Center for Longevity and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development issued a consensus statement, which states “that claims promoting brain games are frequently exaggerated and at times misleading” and that “there is little evidence that playing brain games improves underlying broad cognitive abilities, or that it enables one to better navigate a complex realm of everyday life”. This statement was signed by 70 neuroscientists and psychologists from universities and research centers around the world. Following this statement, a separate group of researchers issued a response asserting that the Stanford statement ignored many studies on CCT that “show improvements that encompass a broad array of cognitive and everyday activities, show gains that persist for a reasonable amount of time, document positive changes in real-life indices of cognitive health”. So how can two groups look at the same research and reach these opposing conclusions?
In 2016, a group of scientists led by Dr. Daniel Simon at the University of Illinois took on the immense task of reviewing the scientific literature on the effects of CCT (over 130 separate studies!)1. Importantly, they focused not only on the conclusions of each study, but how well each study was designed to actually test what it claimed to be testing. After analyzing the literature, the team determined that the controversy at the heart of the CCT debate is not about whether brain training games help at all, but rather the claim that practicing specific brain training tasks will lead to widespread improvements in unrelated, real-world cognitive performance – a phenomenon called task transfer. In other words, will playing a memory game on your phone only help you perform better on that game, or will it also help you to do things like remember where you put your phone last or improve your focus at work? Given that task transfer is one of the major promises made by many brain training companies, the researchers focused their efforts on investigating whether research supported this specific claim.
Ultimately, they concluded that CCT can indeed lead to improvements on very specific cognitive tasks (tasks most similar to the game they were trained on). However, there was very limited evidence to suggest that CCT helped people improve their performance on other tasks or lead to overall cognitive improvements in things like memory or focus. In fact, evidence against task transfer continues to accumulate. In a recent study, participants were trained on a task that involved working memory (your ability to remember new information for a short time, such as a phone number or grocery list), then retested on that original training task as well as a new task that also involved working memory. These results were then compared to a control group who did not receive any training and was tested only on the second, new task. No differences were found between the two groups, suggesting that the cognitive training did not improve performance on a separate task that also involved the same brain regions2. Another study by Penn researchers examined whether Lumosity memory games would improve cognitive abilities such as memory, decision-making, and sustained attention more than regular video games. Unfortunately for video gamers everywhere, it appears that neither Lumosity nor video games lead to cognitive improvement, as there were no differences on cognitive task scores between these groups and control participants who did not play any sort of game3.
So what about the studies that do show an effect of CCT on cognitive performance? These improvements may be due to something called the placebo effect – a beneficial effect resulting from the belief that a treatment or intervention will help, rather than from the treatment or intervention itself. In a study of over 2,800 older adults, 60% of the group that underwent CCT believed they experienced an equal or greater ability to perform everyday tasks following training, compared to 50% of the control group who did not receive CCT. However, when these participants were brought into the lab and tested using multiple well-established cognitive tests, they actually showed no improvement over the controls4. A separate study investigated the effects of the exact same CCT on two groups of people: the first had been told these games would boost their cognition while the second were told they were just going to be playing games. Amazingly, after the CCT the first group scored 5-10 points higher on an IQ test than the second group, suggesting that brain games may only work if you believe they will work5.
While currently there isn’t enough evidence to support the incredible claims made by many CCT-focused companies, this doesn’t mean that there are absolutely no benefits to be gained. Given that these games have only been around for 15-20 years, the science surrounding their effects is also relatively young and there are still so many questions to explore regarding the effects of CCT. For instance, many of these studies are conducted on younger, cognitively normal people. Perhaps CCT may not help these groups, but they may have a larger effect on people with altered or declining cognition.
Although the benefits of CCT are still unclear, there are other ways to maintain or improve cognition that have a little more scientific support. Activities like yoga, catching up with friends, getting a good night’s sleep, and exercising regularly have all been linked to cognitive improvement1,6. Sleeping more and hanging out with friends? Sounds better than playing a game on my phone to me anyways!
Cover Image: from Timisu via Pixabay, Creative Commons CC0. https://pixabay.com/en/mental-health-brain-training-mind-2313426/
- Simons DJ, Boot WR, Charness N, Gathercole SE, Chabris CF, Hambrick DZ, Stine-Morrow EAL. (2016) Do “Brain Training” programs work? Psychol Sci Public Interest 17(3): 103-86
- Stojanowski B, Lyons KM, Pearce AAA, Owen AM (2018) Targeted training: Converging evidence against the transferable benefits of online brain training on cognitive function. Neuropsychologia 117:541-550
- Kable JW et al. (2017) No effect of commercial cognitive training on brain activity, choice behavior, or cognitive performance. J Neurosci 37(31)7390-7402
- Rebok GW et al. (2014) Ten-year effects of the ACTIVE cognitive training trial on cognition and everyday functioning in older adults. J Am Geriatr Soc 62(1):16-24
- Foroughi CK, Monfort SS, Paczynski M, McKnight PE, Greenwood PM (2016) Placebo effects in cognitive training. Proceedings of the Nat Acad of Sci 113(27):7470-7474
- Eyre HA et al (2016) Changes in neural connectivity and memory following a yoga intervention for older adults: a pilot study. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease 52(2): 673-684