Do Brain Trainer Games Really Work?


You’ve probably seen those ads for brain trainer games and apps that promise to give you a workout for your brain, improve brain plasticity, your memory, attention span and all around cognitive ability.

Guess what- it’s a $1 billion brain training industry, and many of the programs it is based on are ineffective, says a new meta-analysis study by the University of Sydney.

The study acknowledges that for older adults, computer-based cognitive training or “brain training”, can in fact lead to improvements in memory, speed, and visuo-spatial skills. But the brain exercises have no impact on cognitive function like attention, impulse control, planning and problem solving.

Brain Degeneration and Cognitive Impairment

With dementia predicted to overcome more than 100 million people worldwide by 2050, brain degeneration and cognitive impairment are among the most feared parts of growing old.

Recent research suggests that engaging in challenging mental activities can help keep healthy cognition and reduce risks of dementia. This the science behind the lucrative brain training market that has sprung up to tap into the baby boomers anxieties about aging.

The study reveals that doing group-based brain training supervised by a trainer is effective at improving performance on a range of cognitive skills in healthy older adults.

But self-directed brain training at home had no therapeutic whatsoever effect on cognition.

The result, says group leader Michael Valenzuela, show “…brain training carried out in a centre can improve cognition in older adults, but commercial products promoted for solo training use at home just don’t work. There are better ways to spend your time and money”.

Frequency of Training

The meta-analysis looked at 51 randomised clinical trials, covering almost 5,000 participants. Meta-analysis uses statistical methods to combine the results of several studies.

“This is a very large number of clinical trials and the results were conclusive,” said Valenzuela. “We now understand how to prescribe brain training based on the highest standards of medical evidence."

The frequency of training, was identified as an important factor.

Researchers found some evidence for the importance of correct brain training session lengths. The results suggested that short sessions of less than 30 min may be ineffective, possibly because synaptic plasticity is more likely after 30–60 min of stimulation.

“Training one to three times a week was effective, but training more than this neutralised any cognitive benefits,” said lead author Dr Amit Lampit. “The brain’s plastic mechanisms may saturate if training is too frequent. Like strenuous physical exercise, we recommend at least one rest day between training sessions."

The most common cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease. It is known to affect learning capacity, memory, orientation, comprehension, calculation, thinking, language and judgment.

For More Information:

Lampit A, Hallock H, Valenzuela M (2014)
Computerized Cognitive Training in Cognitively Healthy Older Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Effect Modifiers.
PLoS Med 11(11): e1001756. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1001756

A pilot study of an online cognitive rehabilitation program for executive function skills in children with cancer-related brain injury
Shelli R. Kesler, Norman J. Lacayo, Booil Jo
Brain Injury Jan 2011, Vol. 25, No. 1: 101–112.

Commercialising neuroscience: Brain sells. The Economist.
Accessed 11 November 2014.