What does science say? Brain training

Picture of Neurons

I was driving home from the Lebanese restaurant in town when I heard a commercial for a new brain training program. It made some lofty claims about improving your memory, alertness, and maximizing your brain’s potential. It got me thinking. Do they really work? There’s an industry growing up around this concept of improving or maintaining your brain as you age. So I had to ask, what exactly does the science say?

In October, a number of reputable scientists in the field—including several accomplished researchers from Michigan State University, the University of Michigan, and Wayne State University—came together to conduct a thorough review of the best current research on brain training. They looked at the claims made and how they lined up with the research:

In summary: We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do. The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the best evidence to date, which is that cognitive health in old age reflects the long-term effects of healthy, engaged lifestyles. In the judgment of the signatories, exaggerated and misleading claims exploit the anxiety of older adults about impending cognitive decline. We encourage continued careful research and validation in this field.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement. The scientific research does not back up the claims made by brain training programs. Of course, that is not to say there are no ways to help expand or maintain brain function. It’s just that like most things, it’s more nuanced and drawn out. Like losing weight. There are no quick fixes. For example, recent research suggests that learning a second language improves general intelligence and brain health as you age. And bouts of exercise will improve your memory.

Photo Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/birthintobeing under Creative Commons.

6 Comment

  1. I’m happy to see more and more blogs like yours that strictly assess: “what does the evidence suggest” and dedicate to the scientific method.

    If I can make an observation, you could replace your Bluehost Server Favicon with your Science Around Michigan logo.

    Keep up the great work,

    Alex,

    1. Adrian de Novato says: Reply

      Alex,

      That’s a good suggestion. I’m not sure I would have seen that otherwise. Thank you for the kind words.

      – Adrian

  2. i only wish it was true, I just keep studying so it still works.

  3. Stacy R. Tech. Writer, upstate NY USA says: Reply

    I do credit Lumosity’s field of vision games with giving me skill and confidence to begin driving again last winter!! They sharpen me up.

  4. These recently published pieces may (or may not) be of interest. This editorial

    http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pmed.1001758

    accompanies this meta-analysis:

    http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001756

    …the latter piece demonstrates benefits, but of uncertain duration and applicability, while the former comments:

    “CCT programmes may or may not be medicine, but to be properly assessed their powers certainly require the tools of evidence-based medicine. Does a billion-dollar gap exist between our knowledge about “standardized computerized tasks with clear cognitive rationale” and the industry selling them? Valenzuela and colleagues’ overview of the evidence for CCT in cognitively intact older adults suggests it does. It makes clear what remains to be discovered and suggests promising lines of inquiry. Their paper is of use to those planning thoughtful research in the field. It will not be the fault of the authors if the small effects shown, specific to particular subgroups and short-term outcomes, lead to the marketing departments of profitable companies declaring, with added confidence and effect, that their products are “scientifically proven” and doing so without being legally responsible for consumers or patients mistaking what that means.”

  5. this makes me kind of mad–as while it is partially true it is also very misleading. I agree Brain Training has become a trendy buzz-word the way “natural” has. All kinds of crap gets labelled “natural” when it is not–because the American consumer is an easily programmable easily fooled patsy–if it’s on the package–or tv–or the internet–why it MUST be true. REAL Brain-Training exists & works–neurfeedback for example– gave me back my brain–& brought me a long part of the road back to getting my sight back too. It was not those 2 final weeks in a holistic mexican clinic getting 9 hours a day of holistic treatment including hours in the Hyperbaric chamber daily–it was the YEARS of holistic lifestyle, self-care & assisted care that preceded those intensive weeks of treatment–including 2+ years of REAL Brain-Training. As the saying going–when buying something–it’s CAVEAT EMPTOR. You gotta KNOW what you’re buying before you buy into it. That does not negate the REAL thing!

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