macbook-336704Brain training has been in the news a lot lately. Companies claim they can improve cognitive function, and people are paying millions of dollars to access their services, lured by the possibility of becoming smarter. These companies are quick to slap the word “neuroscience” on their claims, but what does the published science say?

There are actually two main ways to claim that brain training is demonstrated to “work.”

  • First, brain training could make you better at brain training. That is, if you do a specific memory task several times, you will get better at that specific memory task. That could be considered training, in the same way that playing Tetris trains you to get higher scores in Tetris. But it’s not what most people want from a self-improvement regime.
  • Second, and this is the type of outcome most people want, training could transfer to other tasks. For example, online memory games that make you better at recalling everyone’s name at a party.

Research shows that brain training sucks at accomplishing this more useful outcome.

The Science Behind Brain Training is Pretty Clear

Let’s skip to the results of an early brain training study, published in one of the world’s most prestigious science journals, Nature, by our Chief Scientific Officer, Dr. Adrian Owen. Here is a comparison of two experimental groups (that both did some type of brain training for six weeks) to a control group (that did no training). Cognitive tests from Cambridge Brain Sciences were administered to a huge number of participants before and after performing online brain training tasks.

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These are scores on the paired-associates learning (PAL) test before and after the experimental groups engaged in training. A difference in scores for those groups would indicate a “transfer effect,” in which the training improved scores on a different—but related—cognitive test. If you zoom in far enough, the second bar might be a few pixels higher in some groups, but most notably, there is no more improvement in the experimental groups than there is in the control group. In other words, brain training did not improve scores on the PAL. Similar results were found for other cognitive outcomes.

So Is Brain Training Useless?

Almost, but not entirely. Other analyses from this study showed that training is effective at the first type of outcome—people who did a specific training task got better at doing that specific task. But there was a complete lack of transfer effects, where improving at one task caused improvements in other cognitive outcomes, even when they were closely related. More recent studies (such as this one) have come to similar conclusions.

However:

Brain training’s failures don’t mean cognitive performance can’t change. The cognitive tests from CBS Trials are sensitive to a variety of interventions that actually do have an effect; more on that in future posts. Engaging in a few weeks of simple brain training, however, like in the services currently being sold commercially, is not an effective intervention. The race is on for researchers to find better methods for improving cognitive health. Try CBS Trials for yourself if you are one of those researchers.

Read the full paper of the study discussed here: Putting Brain Training to the Test.

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