Brain training games don't work

Six weeks of computer brain training has little benefit beyond boosting performance on the specific tasks included in the training. That's according to an online study involving more than 11,000 participants conducted as part of the BBC's Bang Goes The Theory science programme.

Adrian Owen of the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit and his colleagues first measured participants' baseline performance on a battery of freely available 'benchmark' tests. Included were measures of reasoning, verbal short-term memory, spatial working memory and paired-associates learning (a test of longer-term verbal memory).

The participants, who had an average age of 39, then formed three groups. The first group spent six weeks, for a minimum of ten minutes a day, three times a week, performing computerised training tasks in reasoning, planning and problem solving. The second group spent the same time training on a broader range of tests of short-term memory, attention, visuospatial processing and mathematics, similar to those found in commercial brain training products. For both brain training groups, the tasks increased in difficulty in line with any gains in participant performance. The final, control group spent the same time using the internet to find answers to obscure quiz questions.

Participants in all groups showed improvements on the specific tasks included in their training regimens, but a repeat of the benchmark performance tests used at the study outset showed that these benefits had not generalised, not even when the training tests and benchmark tests involved similar cognitive processes.

The vanishingly modest transferable benefits of brain training that were observed, were no greater than those found in the control group after they'd spent time Googling the answers to obscure general knowledge questions. To take one example, consider changes to the number of digits participants could hold in memory. At the study end, the control group participants could remember, on average, two-tenths of a digit more than they could at the study outset. What about participants in the second brain training group? Their digit memory increased, on average, by a mere three-hundreths of a digit - actually less than the control group.

'These results provide no evidence for any generalised improvements in cognitive function following brain training in a large sample of healthy adults,' the researchers said.

What about the possibility that the training regimens in the current study weren't long enough to generate transferable benefits? This seems unlikely because there was a negligible link between the number of training sessions completed and the amount of observed transferable benefit. 'That said,' the researchers admitted, 'the possibility that an even more extensive training regime may have eventually produced an effect cannot be excluded'.

The results of this study will be shared and discussed on Bang Goes The Theory on BBC One at 9pm on 21 April and on the BBC's Lab UK website.

The new findings are just the latest to cast doubt on the value of commercial brain training products. A 2008 investigation by the consumer charity Which? concluded that 'none of the claims [of commercial brain training products] are supported by peer-reviewed research published in a recognised scientific journal and involving the specific product'. The Which? investigators, Adrian Owen among them, recommended a healthy diet, physical exercise and challenging mental activities, including learning a new instrument or language, or completing crosswords, as the most effective ways to maintain a healthy mind.

ResearchBlogging.orgA.M. Owen, A. Hampshire, J.A. Grahn, R. Stenton, S. Dajani, A.S. Burns, R.J. Howard, & C.G. Gallard (2010). Putting brain training to the test. Nature [In Press].

Link to interactive website featuring the benchmark cognitive tests used in the current study, including useful background information.
Link to Which? investigation of brain training products.
Link to BBC Bang Goes The Theory programme.
Link to recent feature article in The Independent on brain training.
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