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Online brain training. Does it really work?

When I was about 8 years old, Dad (who has always been quite ahead of his time in acquiring technology) brought home a computer. Our new machine was called a ‘Colour Genie’ and was one of the first computers to have a colour monitor.  It only had a few games that we loaded up via a cassette — remember those good old days?

A few weeks ago, one of my boys came up to me looking a bit puzzled and holding a music cassette. He’d never seen a tape before and had no idea what it was!

Time and technology move so fast that it is hard to keep pace, unless of course, you are my Dad!

Technology is having a big impact on the health industry and brain health is no exception.  Now that this blog is up and running and I’ve started to talk to people about neuroscience, one question that keeps coming up…

Does cognitive brain training work?

So, I thought I’d look into it a bit more…

Firstly, what is brain training?

It might be Google’s very clever response to my search interests in neuroscience and brain health, but ads for online brain training programs appear on my computer all the time … Lumosity, Brain Games, Fitbrains, brainHQ by Posit Science, and even ads to buy the Nintendo DS Brain Training system.

Alvaro Fernandex of SharpBrains (a neuroscience think-tank) defines brain training as:

the structured and efficient use of mental exercises … that can result in better and more sustained performance

Exercise to improve performance.  But does it work for your brain?


The case AGAINST online brain training

In 2009, the BBC ran Brain Test Britain which was an experiment designed to find out if playing brain training games really does have benefits that transfer to other brain skills, like memory, planning or problem-solving.

The scientists who ran the experiment — Dr Adrian Owen of the Medical Research Council and the University of Cambridge, and Professor Clive Ballard, director of research for the Alzheimer’s Society —  asked the public to sign up for a clinical trial, and 13,000 people did.

The brain training volunteers were allocated to three different groups:

a reasoning group who completed training in planning, problem-solving and analysis
a non-reasoning group that trained in short-term memory, attention to detail, maths and interpreting visual information
a control group who played around online for the same amount of time as the other two groups.

After signing up to the experiment, the first thing brain trainers were asked to do was take a set of ‘benchmarking’ tests. These tests assessed specific brain skills that we all have, and gave the scientists an idea of each trainer’s ‘starting point’. At the end of this six week brain training period, they were given the same benchmarking tests again.

During the course of the clincial trial, each of the groups were asked to train for 10 minutes per session, three times a week for a minimum of six weeks.

An in-depth and super interesting (and geeky!) description of the experimental design, brain games (you can play them yourself!), results and conclusions can be found on the Brain Test Britan website.

Interestingly, after all the time, effort and braining training, the Brain Test Britain study found no evidence that the benefits of playing brain training games transfer to other brain skills.

Dr Adrian Owen 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 will no doubt come as a surprise to the millions of people worldwide who do some form of brain training every day in the belief that regularly ‘exercising’ your brain with special tests and puzzles makes you better at everyday thinking tasks.

Brain Test Britain found that people who play brain training games do get better at those specific brain training games that they play. But this really only proves the old adage of ‘practice makes perfect’. There is no evidence that this transfers to the brain skills measured by our benchmarking tests.


The case FOR computerised cognitive  training

The BBC result has been contested by Alvaro Fernandex from Sharp Brains who say that those taking part in the BBC experiment just didn’t train enough:

A minimum “dose” of 15 hours total per targeted brain function, performed over 8 weeks or less, is necessary for real improve­ment. Training only a few hours across a wide variety of brain functions, such as in the “BBC brain training” exper­i­ment, should not be expected to trigger real-world benefits, in the same way that going to the gym a couple times per month and doing an assortment of undirected exercises cannot be expected to result in increased muscle strength and physical fitness.

Sharp Brains state that for brain training to ‘work’ the benefits must ‘transfer’ to everyday life. They propose that 5 conditions must be met for any kind of brain training to translate into meaningful real world improvements:

It must engage and exercise a core brain-based capacity or neural circuit identified to be relevant to real-life outcomes, such as executive attention, working memory, speed of processing and emotional regulation.
It must target a performance bottle­neck — the critical question to ask is: “Which brain function do I need to optimise?” Concentration? Memory? Regulating stress and emotions? The choice of a technique or technology should be driven by your goal.
A minimum “dose” of 15 hours total per targeted brain function, performed over 8 weeks or less, is necessary for real improve­ment.
Training must adapt to performance, require effortful attention, and increase in difficulty. This is thought to be one benefit of online brain training — your progress is monitored and training gets harder.
Continued practice is required for continued benefits.

No harm intended?

An interesting article published earlier this year in the New Yorker concluded with Zach Hambrick associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University who was involved in a randomised, placebo-controlled study that found no evidence of intelligence improvement after working memory training:

And, really, what’s the harm? Working-memory training doesn’t do any damage, one could argue … If you are doing brain training for ten hours a week, that is ten hours a week you are not doing something else, like exercising…It also gives people false hope, especially older adults for whom this is a big concern. What if they do this and they don’t see any benefits? What do you think? You think, ‘There must be something wrong with me,’ or ‘I am a lost cause.’ ”


What do I think?  I don’t see the harm in doing online brain training if you enjoy it (and why do it if it isn’t fun?), you feel that it makes a difference, you’re willing to devote time to it. Oh, and you’re happy to fork out the money to sign up.

If you’re happy with all that, then have a go.

Personally, I’d rather not devote nearly 2 hours or more a week to playing games online … I’d rather find alternative ways to challenge myself cognitively – stuff like reading a book (!?), writing this blog, or running my medical writing business .

What do you think?  Have you trained your brain using online tools?
Leave me a comment below and tell me if you think online brain training improved your brain fitness?




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