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Brain training exercises: Scientific perspectives

General | December 25, 2014 | Author: The Super Pharmacist

general, age related

Brain training exercises: Scientific perspectives

Over the past decade, “brain training” has become a household word. Brain training as it is used in commercials and online advertisements are methods, usually computer games, that promise to enhance learning ability, memory, and cognitive skills. Consumers in the United States spent roughly $2 million on brain training products in 2005 and $80 million in 2007. Today, the brain training industry is a multibillion-dollar, worldwide enterprise. The commercial success of these games is unquestionable, but to these brain-training games actually work? Is there any science to back up the claims?

The Commercialization of Neuroscience

Brain training is nothing new, even though it is only become a popular term quite recently. In its broadest definition, every time we learned new information we train our brain. When we learn a new language, learn to play an instrument, solve new math problems, we are training our brain to perform tasks. Likewise, neuroscientists have used the word neuroplasticity for decades.

Neuroplasticity means the brains ability to physically and chemically adapt to changes in the environment.

Companies have co-opted the term “neuroplasticity” claiming that one can “improve performance with the science of neuroplasticity, but in a way that just feels like games.” Presumably, by playing these games repeatedly over time, the user's score will improve. Improved performance certainly means you are better at playing online games. However, does improved performance at online games mean you are smarter or cognitively better in real life?

The Science (Through the Eyes of Brain Training Companies)

Some of the more common in brain training companies provide summaries of and links to scientific articles that support their products. Some of these papers have been presented in peer-reviewed journals, which is impressive. Others have been presented in non-peer-reviewed posters, which is far less impressive. Let's focus on the results of the peer-reviewed journal articles as published on the company websites.

Drs. Finn and McDonald of the University of New South Wales in Australia randomly placed 25 older individuals with mild cognitive impairment to either undergo a commercial brain training program or not undergo any specific treatment for cognitive impairment.

The Science (Through the Eyes of Brain Training Companies)The researchers found cognitively impaired individuals perform better on the brain training games than those who did not undergo the brain training program. However, the authors also note that there “were no significant effects of training on self-reported everyday memory functioning.”

In other words, the people who played the games got better at the games, but had no better memory than non-trained individuals. 

Breast cancer survivors fared slightly better than the than those with mild cognitive impairment. Twenty-one breast cancer survivors were randomly assigned to participate in a three-month, 48 session training program while 20 other survivors were placed in a waitlist (no treatment). Before and after the study, all study participants took Wisconsin Card Sorting Test, a widely accepted test that measures cognitive performance. The group that underwent the 12 weeks of brain training did significantly better on the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test after training than they did before training. The group of 20 survivors who did not have brain training, performed similar before and after the study. Therefore, the brain training exercises helped people improve their cognitive ability than doing nothing at all. 

The main problem with this research is that the test subjects are compared to nothing or placebo. To evaluate the merits of these programs, it would be useful to compare a brain training program to standard cognitive rehabilitation programs or other mental stimulation exercises. Do the brain training programs have some special formula that improves cognition? Or would these individuals do just as well picking up a crossword puzzle or playing a board game? It would also be important to determine if these cognitive improvements last over extended periods or if they fade away after the brain training stops. Lastly, do these games actually help with real world issues?

The science (through the eyes of scientists)

Researchers at Cambridge, Kings College London, and the University of Manchester critically evaluated the benefits of a commercial brain training program in one of the largest studies of its kind. They enrolled over 11,000 participants and subjected them to a battery of cognitive tests covering reasoning, memory, planning, visuospatial skills, and attention. These participants then perform brain training exercises several times a week for six weeks in an effort to improve their scores on this wide-ranging battery of tests. Their results were quite similar to the results of previously published studies, that is, people did better performing the tasks on which they were trained but were no better at performing untrained tasks. In fact, participants were no better at performing untrained tasks that were very closely associated with the trained tasks. In short, there is very little evidence to support the idea that brain training exercises do anything more than help you play games better.

What does this all mean?

The fact that brain training exercises using games do little more than make you a better game player is not really the fault of the brain training exercises themselves—It is the way our brains work. The human brain is amazingly powerful at learning new information and performing new tasks.

What does this all mean?The more we practice that something whether it is riding a bike or doing algebra problems, the better we get at it (up to an inherent, personally unique maximum). While this allows humans to become violin virtuosos and Nobel Prize winning theoretical physicists, it does not mean the virtuoso can explain string theory to you. Learning is incredibly specific to the task being learned. 

Performing commercial brain training exercises meant to improve memory or attention by using a game do not seem to improve your ability to remember what items you need at the grocery store or to follow a college lecture. For now, they simply help you get a higher score on the game.

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References

Finn M, McDonald S. Computerised Cognitive Training for Older Persons With Mild Cognitive Impairment: A Pilot Study Using a Randomised Controlled Trial Design. Brain Impairment. 2011;12(03):187-199. doi:doi:10.1375/brim.12.3.187

Kesler S, Hadi Hosseini SM, Heckler C, et al. Cognitive training for improving executive function in chemotherapy-treated breast cancer survivors. Clin Breast Cancer. Aug 2013;13(4):299-306. doi:10.1016/j.clbc.2013.02.004

Owen AM, Hampshire A, Grahn JA, et al. Putting brain training to the test. Nature. Jun 10 2010;465(7299):775-778. doi:10.1038/nature09042

Green CS, Bavelier D. Exercising your brain: a review of human brain plasticity and training-induced learning. Psychol Aging. Dec 2008;23(4):692-701. doi:10.1037/a0014345

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