Brain training may do little more than train healthy brains to be good at brain training, yet another study suggests.
In the new controlled, randomized trial involving 128 healthy young adults, researchers found that playing Lumosity brain-training games for 30-minute sessions, five times a week for 10 weeks resulted in participants getting better at playing the games. But researchers saw no changes in participants’ neural activity and no improvements in their cognitive performance beyond those seen in controls. The same went for participants who played video games not designed with cognitive benefits in mind.
Brain Age drills make brain good at Brain Age, little moreThe research, led by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Joseph Kable, is the latest ding to the billion-dollar industry that suggests its games can beef up mental abilities and ward off the cognitive declines of old age—among other things. Last year, Lumosity paid $2 million to the Federal Trade Commission to settle allegations that it baited customers with bogus claims that its games could cure and prevent mental declines and diseases, such as Alzheimer’s. No data suggest that the games can do that. And studies and analyses into the less grand claims of mental improvements have also been mixed: many found that benefits may only be seen in some users; those benefits may not extend beyond placebo effects, and they may not translate into real-world improvements in brain function.
The new trial, published Monday in the Journal of Neuroscience, squares with those findings. “Commercial adaptive cognitive training appears to have no benefits in healthy young adults,” the researchers concluded.
While the study is another point against brain training generally, Kable and his team set out to ask a more nuanced question: could brain training help with decision making and risk taking, potentially benefitting people with addiction and unhealthy habits, like problem drinking and over-eating?
Lumosity pays $2 million to FTC to settle bogus “Brain Training” claimsTheir reasoning for the question was as follows: research has found that increased activity in brain regions involved with executive function can skew a person toward making less risky, more rewarding decisions—like skipping a piece of cake and deciding to turn down $20 now for $40 later. And brain-training games are said to exercise—and potentially improve the function of—those same areas of the brain. So Kable and his colleagues hypothesized that brain training could lead to wiser decisions and healthier behavior.
To test out the idea, the researchers carefully screened nearly 400 potential participants. They enrolled and got complete data from 128 young, healthy adults (average age around 25). Half were randomly assigned to play Lumosity games for the 10 weeks, while the other half played basic computer games designed by researchers at Drexel University to be fun and engaging, but not mentally challenging.
The use of video games as a counterpoint to the brain-training games was to control for all the cognitive stimulation overlaps between using digital games. Previous studies have compared brain-training games to crossword puzzles, which may stimulate the brain differently.
During the study, participants were periodically tested for their risk taking and decision making. They were given cognitive performance tests before and after the gaming. And researchers assessed the activity of brain regions involved with executive function using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures activity based on blood flow in the brain. For an added control, the researchers also had a separate group of 35 participants take cognitive performance tests just like the 128 participants but without playing any type of game.
At the end, playing brain training games improved participants’ ability to play the brain training games. But playing brain training games or basic video games had no effect on the participants’ risk taking and decision making. Neither type of game altered participants’ neural activity, either.
Billion-dollar brain training industry a sham—nothing but placebo, study suggestsBoth brain trainers and video game players saw small and equal improvement in their cognitive performance tests over time. But the 35 participants who just took the cognitive tests saw the same small improvement. This suggests that the games had no effect on cognitive performance. Instead, simply taking tests repeatedly allowed participants to improve on them.
The researchers note limitations in the study, most importantly that they only looked at young, healthy people. Brain-training games may still prove useful for aging adults or people suffering from addiction or unhealthy behaviors, the researchers caution.
The point is echoed by Lumosity. In an e-mailed statement to Ars, Lumosity spokesperson Sara Colvin wrote that:
Looking at the link between cognitive training and risk-reward decision-making is a novel approach—most people don’t associate brain training with decision making or risk sensitivity—and at Lumosity, we encourage taking an innovative approach to research…
However, it’s a giant leap to suggest this study proves cognitive training is “no better than video games at improving brain function”: in fact, the study has a much narrower scope, focusing on risk sensitivity in young adults. There remain many open questions in the field—how, why, and in what circumstances cognitive training is efficacious—and so painting in such broad strokes potentially undermines this important, ongoing research area. We remain committed to supporting quality research, regardless of the outcome: every study can be built on, and they all move us closer to answering open questions—in turn, improving the quality of products available.
More Info: arstechnica.com