Does Brain Training Really Work?
Brain-training games seem to be everywhere these days. The brain-training industry is worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year, with tens of millions of subscribers around the world paying for games or puzzles that promise to improve their brain function. So what does the science really say about brain training? Can brain training really make you smarter and help you avoid mental decline?
Brain training products on the market
High-profile companies such as Lumosity and Cogmed market their products as being able to boost memory, attention span, capacity for learning, or “brain fitness.” Neuronix, an Israeli company, is in the process of developing a training program that will hopefully combat Alzheimer’s disease.
Regulatory and public bodies appear to be catching on to the neuroplasticity trend. In early 2014, the US’s Centres for Medicare and Medicaid Services sought submissions on a new proposal that could have the US government reimbursing consumers for memory fitness activities.
Some companies have turned their attention to children with attention-deficit issues or have experienced some kind of illness or undergone treatment (such as chemotherapy) that impacts their brain. Cogmed, for example, offers working-memory training programs directed at children. There are companies – both established or just starting up – that are focused on just about any area of brain training you can think of.
Scientific studies: Does brain training really work?
The research shows that brain training programs can offer benefits in terms of memory, attention, executive function (such as abstract thinking and strategic planning), reaction time, and processing speed. Brain training has been shown to be as effective as book and pencil training, but it is less labour intensive than using pen and paper.
The founders of Cogmed, psychologist Torkel Klingberg and Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, started by conducting a study on children with ADHD. It found that children with ADHD subject to a progressive training program experienced a decline in hyperactivity and an improvement in working memory and general intelligence (as based on the Raven’s progressive matrices). Further research has confirmed that Cogmed’s program can have benefits for children with Down Syndrome, and for those who’d survived brain cancer or leukaemia.
However, other studies have found that any benefits from brain training tend to be confined to the type of task the user is trained in. A review of 23 studies of brain-training programs showed that the benefits of brain-training programs aren’t transferable to other skills or tasks.
This means brain training has limited impact when it comes to general use; that is, training in one task usually doesn’t bestow benefits for other types of tasks. Developing visual-spatial training, for example, won’t help with verbal-cognitive function.
Studies have found that brain training does have limited benefits for older adults with brain impairment (such as dementia) who are only mildly impacted. Other studies suggest that brain training can yield positive results for short-term memory and long-term focus in older adults. Yet another study, by the National Institutes of Health in the US, found that brain training benefits (in this study, reasoning and speed) can last for ten years or more for older adults.
According to Dr Murali Doraiswamy, director at the Neurocognitive Disorders Program at Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, the current problem with brain-training programs is that the field is lacking large, national studies. Additionally, many researchers are aware that there are not yet any consistent standards for measuring brain-training benefits.
Other experts say that current brain-training programs have a long way to go. Dr Robert Wood from the University of Melbourne says that overcoming the current limitations in brain-training programs will result in improved wellbeing, flexibility, attention, knowledge, and memory.
The bottom line about brain training
While the science on the benefits of brain training is not definitive, there’s no harm in playing a brain-training game on your computer or phone. However, further research is required for a definitive answer on the advantages on brain training.
The bottom line is that consumers should be aware that there’s the possibility that they could be spending money training their brains in a way that could be replicated by doing other things, such as reading or other activities that boost memory and reasoning abilities.
As Dr Doraiswamy has noted, consumers may be better off pursuing challenging activities such as listening to a lecture or learning to play a new musical instrument, or other novel and fun activities that don’t necessarily involve using a computer or gadget.
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