Online brain training programs claim many brain benefits. But is there definitive evidence for their effectiveness? Learn other ways to exercise your brain.
Brain training is a term that most often describes the use of online games and software to exercise the brain.
Online brain training is an exploding, billion-dollar-a-year industry. (1)
Brain training programs claim to improve intelligence and cognitive skills like memory, attention, processing speed, and problem solving ability by tapping into your brain’s plasticity — its ability to change.
Some even profess to help those with significant brain problems such as traumatic brain injury, ADHD, dyslexia, dementia, chemo brain, and more.
One brain training program website states, “You may be the smartest person in the world and you don’t even know it.” (suggesting that brain training could release your hidden genius?)
Do Lumosity, Fit Brains, CogniFit, and other commercial brain training programs work as claimed?
It’s not hard to find plenty of “evidence” to support that this structured approach to cognitive training does work.
But much of it is supplied by the brain games makers themselves.
With their investment at stake, there is an obvious conflict of interest here.
Let’s look at what unbiased neuroscientists — those not working in the brain training program industry — have to say about the effectiveness of this kind of brain training.
Neuroscientists Speak Out For and Against Brain Training
In October, 2014, a group of 73 leading brain scientists released a statement, A Consensus on the Brain Training Industry from the Scientific Community.
This open letter was released jointly by two prestigious institutions, the Stanford Center on Longevity and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development.
This letter criticized the companies that promote and sell brain training programs for making exaggerated claims and for feeding on the fears of seniors and baby boomers concerned with future cognitive decline.
The letter’s conclusion states:
“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.”
This group of scientists believes more research is needed before such claims can be made.
Two months later, an even larger group of over 100 neuroscientists issued a rebuttal, Cognitive Training Data Response Letter.
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(For the record, one of the scientists in the first group and eight of those in the second group acknowledged a conflict of interest — having a financial interest in the brain training software or competing industries.)
This letter stated that they “agreed with the parts of the center’s statement critical of brain exercise companies that overstate their claims,” yet claimed that brain training programs offer consumers a scientifically based way to reduce cognitive decline.
Following these two letters, a team of neuroscientists created a 84 page report — Do “Brain-Training” Programs Work? — that concluded that there is insufficient evidence to justify the claim that brain training enhances real-world cognition and that most studies have been substandard.
Both sides of this argument do agree on one thing — that some brain training companies are guilty of exaggerating cognitive benefits to consumers.
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Do Study Results Apply to the General Population?
Accompanying the rebuttal letter was a list of 132 brain training studies that “directly demonstrate that computerized cognitive training can improve cognition.”
The titles of these studies reveal that the majority of these tests were done on groups of people with specific brain problems.
As I read through the list, two groups stood out.
Of these studies, 47 involved people with schizophrenia and 36 involved “older” people.
These studies concluded that software-based brain training helped these groups improve whatever brain function was tested.
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But does that mean that a commercially available brain training program will yield similar improvement in people with normal brain function?
According to Dr. Steven Novella, a neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine, the answer is no.
He observes that most brain training studies are, in fact, done on a select group of people with a specific brain problem, e.g, people with schizophrenia or seniors with mild cognitive impairment (MCI).
He cautions that “there are various target populations who likely will not respond in the same way to brain-training interventions.” (2)
In other words, don’t conclude that the positive mental improvement seen in people with schizophrenia or seniors with MCI will translate to cognitively healthy adults.
Brain Training Under Fire for False Claims
Authorities have started to crack down on unsubstantiated claims made by brain training software companies.
In January of 2015, the US Federal Trade Commission ordered Focus Education to stop making claims that their computer game, Jungle Rangers, could permanently improve a child’s focus, memory and school performance and was “highly beneficial” for children with ADHD. (3)
Then in 2016 the FTC fined Lumosity $2 million for false advertising.
Now that online brain training is on the FTC’s radar, we expect to see more brain training programs being taken to task for overstating their cognitive benefits.
Two Major Studies Reach Different Conclusions
There are two large studies that are often cited as irrefutable evidence.
One study is said to “prove” that brain training works.
The other is said to “prove” it doesn’t.
Brain Training Works: The ACTIVE Study
The Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) study was funded by the US National Institute on Aging.
It was the first large-scale trial to show that computerized brain training improves cognitive function in older adults.
Study participants were on average 74 years old and were in good health.
This study was not designed to address dementia.
Participants received 10 hours of cognitive training over a period of 5-6 weeks.
This study showed not only that this kind of brain training worked, but that the benefits lasted long after the training had stopped.
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Surprisingly, participants who were checked five years after their training ended still showed detectable brain improvements in the areas they were trained in — memory, reasoning, or processing speed.
At their 10-year checkup, there was some decline in the reasoning and processing speed groups, but it was less than experienced by the control group.
The group trained in memory no longer experienced any benefit over the control group.
ACTIVE Study Bottom Line: Computerized brain training can provide long-lasting cognitive benefits in healthy seniors in the three cognitive areas tested — memory, reasoning, and processing speed.
Does this prove that all brain training programs work for everyone in all cognitive areas?
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Brain Training Doesn’t Work: Brain Test Britain
Participants’ ages ranged from 18 to 80 with the average age being 43.
Participants were divided into three groups — reasoning tasks, non-reasoning tasks, and a control group.
The reasoning brain training group trained on tasks targeting planning, problem solving, and analysis.
The non-reasoning brain training group focused on mental skills similar to those targeted by commercial brain training software — short-term memory, attention to detail, math, and interpreting visual information.
The Brain Test Britain study found that people who played brain training games got better at those specific games.
No surprise there.
But there was no evidence that the benefits of playing brain training games translated to improvement in other brain skills.
Dr. Adrian Owen of the University of Cambridge said, “The result is crystal clear. Brain training is only as good as spending six weeks using the internet. There is no meaningful difference.”
This is a stunning indictment from one of the study designers.
The Brain Test Britain study results were published in the prestigious science journal Nature.
Brain Test Britain Bottom Line: Computer-based brain training shows no benefits beyond improved skill at playing brain training games for people of a wide variety of ages. Any benefits do not translate to other brain functions.
Brain Training: Good Match for a Multisensory Brain?
A big problem with commercial cognitive training programs is that they rely almost exclusively on sight and perhaps a little on sound, but they definitely do not engage all your senses.
Dr. Lawrence Katz, an internationally recognized neurobiologist, wrote Keep Your Brain Alive: 83 Neurobic Exercises to Help Prevent Memory Loss and Increase Mental Fitness back in 1998 when no one was talking about brain fitness or brain training.
Dr. Katz coined the phrase “neurobics” to describe brain exercises that enhance brain fitness and function.
For an exercise to be truly neurobic, it must be novel (unusual), complex, and engage several of your senses at once.
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Examples of neurobic activities are as simple as wearing your watch upside down or brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand.
One of his favorite neurobic exercises is shopping at a farmer’s market because it engages more of your senses than shopping at a supermarket.
For those of us who spend most of our day sitting at the computer, online brain training hardly meets these standards.
John Kennedy is the president of Combat Brain Training, a non-digital neuroplastic training program which he developed for the US Marines.
He echoes Dr. Katz’s sentiments that engaging all our senses is critical for getting improvement from a brain training program.
He says that we are “analog” beings (as opposed to digital) and that the more senses are involved in any neural activity, the faster and stronger new neural connections are formed.
He believes that brain training games in software like Lumosity result in better game scores, but that there is little to no real world cognitive improvement.
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Increase Brain Power Without Brain Training Games
If brain training games aren’t a surefire way to improve brain function, you may wonder if there are any other ways to get a good brain workout.
There certainly are.
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Physical exercise, meditation, playing a musical instrument, learning a second language, travel, playing chess, and engaging in craft hobbies are all proven ways to increase memory, clarity, focus, and mood. (5, 6, 7)
We think you’ll be surprised how learning and doing a wide variety of real world activities can stimulate your brain and help keep it sharp.
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Read 15 Brain Exercises to Keep Your Mind Sharp for more evidence-based tips to improve mental performance.
Lost Opportunity Costs
One of our biggest qualms about brain training programs is that the time spent doing them could be better spent doing other activities that are more mentally, emotionally, socially and physically productive.
Most programs recommend doing their brain exercises for 20 minutes per day.
That works out to 120 hours per year, an equivalent of three full work weeks.
Are you sure this is the best use of your time?
We think most people already spend way too much time engaged with their various electronic devices.
Our advice? Reduce your screen time a bit.
Then use that time to do any of the other activities mentioned above that are not only proven brain boosters but offer other health benefits as well.
Brain Training: The Bottom Line
Online brain training is a huge and growing industry.
Consumers need to be aware of the exaggerated claims made by the makers of commercial brain training software.
Most research involving brain training programs has been done with people who have mental health issues.
It’s not scientifically valid to infer that brain-healthy adults will see similar brain benefits.
Your brain thrives on variety.
Consider doing real world activities to replace or supplement online brain training programs.
These activities have been proven to be effective brain exercise and provide other valuable health benefits and life skills.