Do brain-training games really work?
By Ana Sandoiu,
August 1, 2018

With the recent surge of brain-training apps available for every smartphone user out there, it's worth asking do brain-training games hold any real cognitive benefit? A new study investigates.

Brain-training apps, such as Lumosity or Elevate, are being used by tens of millions of people worldwide. But when placed under scientific scrutiny, the benefits of such brain-training games turn out to be controversial.

For instance, some studies have found that brain-training games improve the "executive functions, working memory, and processing speed" of young people, while others hail the benefits of such games for preserving cognitive health in seniors.

On the other side of the debate, however, we find those who say that no such benefits exist. A report published last year, for example, monitored the brain activity, cognitive skills, and decision-making abilities of young adults, only to conclude that brain-training games "do not boost cognition."

Now, a new study backs up the latter camp. Neuroscientists at Western University in Ontario, Canada, set out to investigate if the alleged cognitive benefits of brain-training tasks can be transferred to other tasks that the users haven't been specifically trained for but which engage the same brain regions.

Bobby Stojanoski, a research scientist in the Brain and Mind Institute at Western University, is the lead author of the paper, which was published in the journal Neuropsychologia.

Testing the benefits of training the brain
Stojanoski and colleagues explain in their paper that the controversy around the cognitive benefits of brain-training apps is mainly due to the fact that most studies have not chosen precise cognitive skills and outcome measures in a consistent manner.

To correct this, they used "a targeted training approach" in which 72 participants were trained on "two different, but related, working memory tasks."

Working memory refers to the brain's ability to retain new information such as a new name, a shopping list, or a telephone number for a short period of time.

The participants took part in two experiments. One tested their working memory in a certain task that they had been trained on, and the other tested them on another, related task that they received no specific training in. The second task engaged the same brain areas as the first.

The researchers compared the results with those of a control group that received no training whatsoever, but whose participants were tested only on the second task.

Sleep, exercise, friends are better than apps
The research team found that the high scores in the first game did not boost the participants' performance in the second game.

"We hypothesized that if you get really, really good at one test by training for a very long time, maybe then you'll get improvement on tests that are quite similar. Unfortunately, we found no evidence to support that claim," says Stojanoski.

"Despite hours of brain training on that one game, participants were no better at the second game than people who tested on the second game, but hadn't trained on the first one," the researcher explains.

"From a consumer perspective," Stojanoski goes on, "if you hear a company or an advertisement [saying], 'do brain training, do this thing for half an hour and you'll get a higher IQ' that's very, very appealing. Unfortunately, there's just no evidence to support that claim."

There are, however, other things you can do to stay mentally agile. "Sleep better, exercise regularly, eat better, education is great that's the sort of thing we should be focused on," says the lead author.

"If you're looking to improve your cognitive self, instead of playing a video game or playing a brain-training test for an hour, go for a walk, go for a run, socialize with a friend. These are much better things for you." ~ Bobby Stojanoski