In light of the increasing popularity of brain training, or “brain games,” and the claims being made about them, the Stanford Center on Longevity and Berlin’s Max Planck Institute for Human Development commissioned a consensus report from nearly 70 scientists on the current state of research on brain training. The scientists were asked to evaluate the claims and promises being made for brain games, and to recommend effective ways to improve cognition in healthy older adults. The consensus conclusion of the group was that “claims promoting brain games are frequently exaggerated and at times misleading,” and that “exaggerated and misleading claims exploit the anxiety of adults facing old age for commercial purposes.”
The scientists noted that there are some studies in which participants in brain training programs show a statistically significant improvement in practiced skills, and that these changes sometimes extend to improvement in other cognitive tasks. Some of these gains dissipate over time, while other gains are more enduring. However, in spite of some evidence for a cognitive impact from brain training, the scientists ultimately conclude that, “In commercial promotion, these small, narrow, and fleeting advances are often billed as general and lasting improvements of mind and brain.” Some of their skepticism about the commercial claims made for brain games comes from the small sample sizes of many of the studies conducted on these products to date, and the fact that studies that do not show statistically significant results are less likely to be published. While there are intriguing findings from some published studies, the scientists call for additional systemic research to replicate, clarify, and expand the results of available research. Additionally, the observed performance improvements seen in brain-training users may be due not to changes in the brain, but instead may reflect users’ changes in motivation (produced by an increasing desire to improve at a skill) or users learning new strategies that lead to better performance on a cognitive task.
However, the conclusions in the report do not mean that the brain doesn’t remain malleable even in old age. The scientists note that any effortful new experience will produce changes in the neural systems that are involved in acquiring the new skill. Computerized brain games are indeed one way to learn a new skill, but the scientists state, “it is not appropriate to conclude that training-induced changes go significantly beyond the learned skills, that they affect broad abilities with real-world relevance, or that they generally promote brain health.” For example, a brain game that aims to increase reaction time in response to a visual stimulus would likely have an impact on brain circuitry associated with reactions to a visual stimulus, but this cognitive improvement would not likely extend to other types of cognitive abilities. Moreover, the day-to-day relevance or usefulness of a quicker reaction time may be negligible.
Another important point made in the report is the opportunity cost of engaging in brain games. It is important to consider that time spent engaging in brain games could be “time … spent reading, socializing, gardening, exercising, or engaging in many other activities that may benefit cognitive and physical health of older adults.” Regarding improvements from a brain game being very skill-specific, the scientists suggest that older adults might be better off training on an activity that comes with benefits for everyday life. However, the group does note that brain training may represent less of an opportunity cost if it is replacing time spent in a sedentary state, like watching television.
The other sense in which brain training and its promotion reflects an opportunity cost is that these brain games could come to be seen as a magic bullet for cognitive deterioration, and detract from the importance of established prevention efforts that have been shown to impact risk of cognitive decline. A focus on brain games “detracts from the message that cognitive vigor in old age, to the extent that it can be influenced by the lives we live, reflects the long-term effects of a healthy and active lifestyle.” In contrast to the limited evidence in favor of brain training, substantial research has established that “those who live cognitively active, socially connected lives and maintain healthy lifestyles are less likely to suffer debilitating illness and early cognitive decline in their golden years than their sedentary, cognitively and socially disengaged counterparts.”
In light of all of the above, the consulted scientists provide the following recommendations:
- Much more research needs to be done on what types of activities benefit cognitive functioning in everyday life.
- Physical activity is recommended as a moderately effective way of improving general health, which includes brain fitness. Aerobic exercise in particular is recommended as providing small but noticeable gains in cognitive performance, or slowing the rate of cognitive decline.
- The scientists caution against concluding that a brain game has been rigorously examined if claims are made on the basis of a single study, especially if that study is conducted by researchers with a financial interest in the product.
- No studies have demonstrated that brain games cure or prevent Alzheimer’s Disease or any other form of dementia.
- It is important to not expect that cognitively challenging activities will serve as a one-shot treatment or vaccine. Instead, they write that, “In all likelihood, gains won’t last long after you stop the challenge.”
In the absence of the additional research that the scientists deem necessary, the group recommends that “individuals lead physically active, intellectually challenging, and socially engaged lives, in ways that work for them.” This message about the importance of lifestyle factors for brain health shouldn’t get lost among the many advertisements from groups wanting to sell brain games.
Allaire JC, Bäckman L, Balota DA, et al. Stanford Center on Longevity. A Consensus on the Brain Training Industry from the Scientific Community. http://longevity3.stanford.edu/blog/2014/10/15/the-consensus-on-the-brain-training-industry-from-the-scientific-community-2/. October 20, 2014. Accessed November 3, 2014.