Online brain training programs like Lumosity claim many cognitive benefits for healthy adults. But where is the definitive supporting evidence?
Online brain training continues to be a growing billion-dollar industry. (1)
Developers of brain training programs claim that they can 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 brain training can help those with significant brain problems such as traumatic brain injury, ADHD, dyslexia, dementia, chemo brain, and more.
But do Lumosity 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 companies that market brain training programs.
With so much money at stake, the potential for conflict of interest is great.
Do Lumosity and Other Brain Training Programs Work? What Experts Say
In 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 who are concerned about 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.”
Shortly afterward, another group of over 100 neuroscientists issued a rebuttal, Cognitive Training Data Response Letter.
For the record, eight of them acknowledged having a financial interest (research funding, stock options, or stocks) in the brain training industry. (2)
This letter states 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.
Then, a third team of neuroscientists created an 84-page report, Do “Brain-Training” Programs Work?, which concluded that there is insufficient evidence to justify the claims that brain training enhances real-world cognition and that most brain training studies have been substandard.
There are two important points that neuroscientists on both sides of this argument agree on:
- some brain training companies are guilty of exaggerating cognitive benefits to consumers
- more high-quality research is needed.
There’s No Evidence Brain Training Helps Healthy Adults
A list of hundreds of brain training studies that “directly demonstrate that computerized cognitive training can improve cognition” has been published on the same website as the Cognitive Training Data Response Letter.
The list is maintained by Michael Merzenich, PhD, the co-founder and chief scientific officer at Posit Science, the maker of BrainHQ.
The titles of these studies reveal that this research was performed almost exclusively on groups of people with specific brain and neurological disorders including schizophrenia, dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, traumatic brain injury (TBI), mild cognitive impairment (MCI), and memory loss.
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None of the studies on this list looked at the effects of brain training on cognitively healthy adults.
Dr. Steven Novella, a neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine, cautions that there is no reason to assume that the improvements experienced by those with specific brain problems extend to cognitively healthy adults. (3)
He believes that brain training is no more effective than any generic kind of learning.
Interestingly, there is evidence that any perceived benefits of brain training could be due to the placebo effect. (4)
In one study, young adults aged 18 to 30 reported cognitive improvements from brain training, but tests of their intelligence, multitasking, and other cognitive abilities showed no improvements! (5)
Another study on healthy adults (average age 37) uncovered an unintended consequence of brain training.
Researchers found that after five weeks of computer-based brain training, study participants actually performed worse on certain memory skills. (6)
Does Brain Training Work? Conclusions of Two Major Studies
Next, let’s take a look at two large brain training studies that are often cited as irrefutable evidence.
The first study concludes that brain training works, but only in the elderly.
The second study, which included participants of all ages, is often quoted as proof that brain training doesn’t work.
The ACTIVE Study: Brain Training Works
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 can improve cognitive function in older adults.
Study participants were 74 years old on average and in good health.
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.
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 that 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.
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The Brain Test Britain study is by far the largest computer-based brain training study so far with over 60,000 participants.
Participants’ ages ranged from 18 to 80, with the average age being 43.
They were divided into three groups.
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 third group was a control group.
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 for those under 50 years of age.
Those over 50 displayed better verbal learning and reasoning skills, while those over 60 became better at daily life tasks like remembering to take their medication.
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.” (7)
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.
Does Lumosity Work as Advertised?
Lumosity is by far the most popular brain training program, so naturally would be the first to come under scrutiny.
At one time, Lumosity claimed that their brain training program could help with brain trauma, chemo fog, and mild cognitive impairment and that healthy people could use it to prevent cognitive decline. (8)
They’ve even claimed that it could ward off Alzheimer’s disease. (9)
But, in 2016, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) decided that Lumosity could not support these claims and fined Lumos Labs, the company behind Lumosity, for false advertising. (10)
The FTC charged Lumos Labs for falsely claiming that Lumosity could:
- improve performance in school, work, and athletics
- delay age-related mental decline
- protect against dementia and Alzheimer’s
- help ADHD, PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and other health conditions.
According to Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, “Lumosity preyed on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline, suggesting their games could stave off memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease. But Lumosity simply did not have the science to back up its ads.” (11)
This money was used to reimburse some of their paying customers.
Lumosity is still in business, but they have toned down their claims in their advertising and on their website.
In fact, they now make this more realistic statement on their website: “… we need to do more research to determine the connection between improved assessment scores and everyday tasks in participants’ lives. That’s our next focus.”
Lumosity is the biggest, but it’s not the only brain training program to come under fire for making exaggerated claims.
In 2015, the FTC 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. (15)
LearningRX, which operated more than 80 “brain training” centers across the US, was fined for claiming their program could help improve work and athletic performance as well aid dementia, Alzheimer’s, age-related cognitive decline, ADHD, stroke, autism, and traumatic brain injury. (16)
Now that brain training is on the FTC’s radar, you can expect to see more programs being taken to task for overstating their cognitive benefits.
Why Brain Training Is Not the Best Brain Exercise
A big drawback of commercial brain 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 and 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.
More complex neurobic activities include traveling or 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 neuroplasticity training program which he developed for the US Marines.
He echoes Dr. Katz’s sentiments that engaging all our senses is critical for getting results from a brain training program.
He says that we are “analog” rather than “digital” beings 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 programs like Lumosity result in better game scores, but that there is “little to no” cognitive improvement.
Brain Exercises That Work Better Than Lumosity
One of my biggest qualms about brain training 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?
Most people already spend way too much time engaged with their various electronic devices.
My advice? Reduce your screen time and take that time to do things in the real world.
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Physical exercise, meditation, playing a musical instrument, learning a second language, travel, playing chess, and engaging in creative pastimes are all proven ways to increase memory, clarity, focus, and mood. (17, 18, 19, 20)
And unlike brain training, these are real-world activities that will increase your engagement and enjoyment of life and keep your mind sharp.
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Discover more evidence-based ways to improve mental performance in 15 Brain Exercises to Keep Your Mind Sharp.
Does Lumosity Work? The Bottom Line
Online brain training is a growing industry.
Consumers need to be aware of the exaggerated claims made by the makers of commercial brain training software.
Lumosity was one of the first to get caught out on this, but probably won’t be the last.
Most research on computerized brain training has studied people with existing brain health concerns.
It’s not scientifically valid to infer that cognitively healthy adults will see similar brain benefits.
Since brain training is not a surefire way to improve brain function, consider doing real-world activities instead.
Activities such as meditation, exercise, playing music, and creating art effectively exercise your brain while enhancing valuable life skills.