Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Brain training games don't work

Six weeks of computer brain training has little benefit beyond boosting performance on the specific tasks included in the training. That's according to an online study involving more than 11,000 participants conducted as part of the BBC's Bang Goes The Theory science programme.

Adrian Owen of the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit and his colleagues first measured participants' baseline performance on a battery of freely available 'benchmark' tests. Included were measures of reasoning, verbal short-term memory, spatial working memory and paired-associates learning (a test of longer-term verbal memory).

The participants, who had an average age of 39, then formed three groups. The first group spent six weeks, for a minimum of ten minutes a day, three times a week, performing computerised training tasks in reasoning, planning and problem solving. The second group spent the same time training on a broader range of tests of short-term memory, attention, visuospatial processing and mathematics, similar to those found in commercial brain training products. For both brain training groups, the tasks increased in difficulty in line with any gains in participant performance. The final, control group spent the same time using the internet to find answers to obscure quiz questions.

Participants in all groups showed improvements on the specific tasks included in their training regimens, but a repeat of the benchmark performance tests used at the study outset showed that these benefits had not generalised, not even when the training tests and benchmark tests involved similar cognitive processes.

The vanishingly modest transferable benefits of brain training that were observed, were no greater than those found in the control group after they'd spent time Googling the answers to obscure general knowledge questions. To take one example, consider changes to the number of digits participants could hold in memory. At the study end, the control group participants could remember, on average, two-tenths of a digit more than they could at the study outset. What about participants in the second brain training group? Their digit memory increased, on average, by a mere three-hundreths of a digit - actually less than the control group.

'These results provide no evidence for any generalised improvements in cognitive function following brain training in a large sample of healthy adults,' the researchers said.

What about the possibility that the training regimens in the current study weren't long enough to generate transferable benefits? This seems unlikely because there was a negligible link between the number of training sessions completed and the amount of observed transferable benefit. 'That said,' the researchers admitted, 'the possibility that an even more extensive training regime may have eventually produced an effect cannot be excluded'.

The results of this study will be shared and discussed on Bang Goes The Theory on BBC One at 9pm on 21 April and on the BBC's Lab UK website.

The new findings are just the latest to cast doubt on the value of commercial brain training products. A 2008 investigation by the consumer charity Which? concluded that 'none of the claims [of commercial brain training products] are supported by peer-reviewed research published in a recognised scientific journal and involving the specific product'. The Which? investigators, Adrian Owen among them, recommended a healthy diet, physical exercise and challenging mental activities, including learning a new instrument or language, or completing crosswords, as the most effective ways to maintain a healthy mind.

ResearchBlogging.orgA.M. Owen, A. Hampshire, J.A. Grahn, R. Stenton, S. Dajani, A.S. Burns, R.J. Howard, & C.G. Gallard (2010). Putting brain training to the test. Nature [In Press].

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Link to interactive website featuring the benchmark cognitive tests used in the current study, including useful background information.
Link to Which? investigation of brain training products.
Link to BBC Bang Goes The Theory programme.
Link to recent feature article in The Independent on brain training.


Cervantes said...

It would be a whole different story if they tried it with children, however. The question is how old you have to be before you're pretty much stuck with the neural chops you've got. It's obviously less than 39 but it might be older than people think.

Anonymous said...

my understanding is that Posit Science has rather a lot of resaerch behind its products approaches, though?

Digest said...

Hi Anonymous - do you have any links to actual peer-reviewed studies showing that the effects of Posit Science generalise?

Cervantes - I'm not sure you're right about that. We know that neural plasticity lasts throughout life. Adult brains do change in response to computer brain training. The problem is that they only change in a way that leads to improvement on the specific tasks included in the training. Despite this, braining training products usually boast that the benefits generalise to all-round improvement in mental ability.

Anonymous said...

Do this research then support the idea that brain training games do not help prolong temporal degeneration in alzheimer's patients?

e. jaffe said...

Think you have a couple editor's comments stuck in that final paragraph.

roach said...


Jirka said...

So these participants spent 3(!) hours solving puzzles and were expected to become measurably smarter? You wouldn't expect anyone to learn a foreign language or play an instrument in 3 hours, so why increasing your intelligence should be any faster or easier?

Chris said...

There is a big difference between serious brain training programs based on peer reviewed research and casual brain games that have no scientific validation. Frankly, the market hasn't done a very good job of explaining what a real brain training program is, including the need for scheduled blocks of training time. Here is a site that helps to separate validated brain training programs from casual brain games : http://www.braingamereview.com

Anonymous said...

As teacher, yes brain training is very much different from brain games. And yes, brain training works for children and teen significantly, but also works for people older who have very active brain. As ordinary people this article is confusing. And as we hope that scientist bring hope to better life for humanity, is not occur when people who are starting to have interest in learning about the brain, read this article. And poorly no one have fight backs.

Anonymous said...

The study made by the BBC was of flaws. They invented their own games and the people who participated have to try them for 10 minutes a day. They only had to do it 3 times a week.That is bad!!! Is like inventing your own medicine and gave it to sick people and if it they do not get better then it means that medicine(generalization) does not work.Sorry for my English. Is not my language

Nick said...

This study was a stupid joke. Three hours of training does not produce transfer effects and noone has ever claimed it does. Twenty hours produces near transfer effects. It takes one hundred hours of serious brain training to get far transfer. This study concluded the piano is a useless piece of junk because 10,000 people couldn't learn to play it by practicing 10 minutes a day for six weeks. Hello??

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