Many "brain-training" games may be marketed as a way to boost people's alertness and intelligence, but scientists are now warning that such claims are not based on actual science.
Sixty-nine scientists from around the world issued a statement this week, saying that there's no compelling scientific evidence supporting the claims that playing brain games may actually help people enhance their mental powers or overcome the effects of aging on the brain.
The scientists didn't indicate which brain-training products are making misleading claims and which aren't. But the brain fitness business has been booming in recent years, forecasted to reach $6 billion in 2020, according to a market research group Sharp Brains.
The most well-known is the website Lumosity, which has more than 60 million subscribers in 180 countries, according to the company. California-based Happy Neuron has nearly 11 million users and offers brain training programs to stimulate the main five cognitive functions, including memory, attention, language, and logical thinking. Rosetta Stone's Fit Brains offers games, designed by neuroscientists to help train crucial brain skills, the company says.
Some companies take their focus a step further from working on basic mental functions — The British Cogmed says that it develops brain-training programs to help children with attention and learning problems, and the Israeli Neuronix says it aims to improve mental function in people with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease.
The scientists involved in issuing the new statement said they take issue with companies that "assure consumers that claims and promises are based on solid scientific evidence," because the scientific literature does not support these claims.
"It is customary for advertising to highlight the benefits and overstate potential advantages of their products," Laura Carstensen, the director of the Center for Longevity at Stanford University, said in a statement. "But in the case of brain games, companies also assert that the products are based on solid scientific evidence developed by cognitive scientists and neuroscientists, so we felt compelled to issue a statement directly to the public." [8 Tips for Healthy Aging]
Some "brain-training" products with misleading claims may especially exploit the anxieties some older people regarding age-related cognitive decline, the scientists said. Some brain games even claim to help prevent Alzheimer's disease, they said.
However, "no studies have demonstrated that playing brain games cures or prevents Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia," the scientists wrote.
Although some studies have found that playing brainy games seems to improve people's thinking skills, the studies have generally looked at people's scores on tests given in a lab setting. The problem with that is that findings in the lab do not necessarily translate to complex, real-life mental skills, the scientists said. Moreover, it is unclear how long such improvements may last.
"Do not expect that cognitively challenging activities will work like one-shot treatments or vaccines; there is little evidence that you can do something once (or even for a concentrated period) and be inoculated against the effects of aging in an enduring way. In all likelihood, gains won't last long after you stop the challenge," the researchers said.
Still, it is true that the human brain can change and improve, even in old age, the scientists said. Any new experience that requires mental effort can produce changes in the brain; however, not every change is significant enough to help with the brain's general health, they said.
The jury is still out on the best way to sharpen mental abilities, but playing brain games is likely not as effective as learning a new language or a new instrument, or exercising, the researchers said.