Do 'Brain Training' Games Really Work? (Op-Ed)

Illustration of human head with computer symbols coming out of head
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Dr. John Swartzberg is an internist and specialist in infectious disease, and chairman of the editorial board of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter and He is also a clinical professor emeritus of medicine at the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health and the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine. He contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

There's a growing stream of ads and websites hyping the marvels of computer-based cognitive programs and brain games for anxiously aging baby boomers and their parents. I certainly understand the attraction of promises of faster think­ing, rejuvenated memory and sharper focus — all for just a few hundred dollars or perhaps $12 a month, auto-billed — especially when I mis­place my car keys (again!) or forget a password I use every day. 

But many of the ads make me cringe, especially because I know that the research about brain training has been underwhelming, for the most part. 

So I was happy to hear a few months ago that 70 leading cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists issued a consensus statement expressing skepticism about brain training and how it's being marketed. The statement was released by the Stanford Center on Longevity and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development. Here are some of its key points:

  • Many claims are "exaggerated and misleading" and exploit the anxiety of healthy older adults worried about memory loss. There's no convincing evidence that any brain training programs will improve general cognitive abilities or help prevent or treat dementia, including Alzheimer's disease.
  • The companies often boast that their programs are designed by famous scientists and are supported by solid research. But most of the studies they cite are small, short, and funded by the brain-game companies. What's more, because the studies are so short, it's unclear whether any improvements in skills practiced in brain games would persist or carry over to other cognitive tasks and daily living. We need large, long-term studies carried out by independent researchers.
  • The best brain-health advice, based largely on observational findings, is to lead a physically active, intellectually challenging and socially engaged life. In particular, much research shows that physical exercise is a moderately effective way to maintain, and even improve, brain fitness. However, even this is far from certain. A recent review by the Cochrane Collaboration — a group of more than 31,000 expert volunteers who analyze medical research — found no convincing evidence that aerobic exercise improves mental function in cognitively healthy older people. The report pointed out, "If an hour spent doing solo software drills is an hour not spent hiking, learning Italian, making a new recipe or playing with your grandchildren, it may not be worth it."

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Not surprisingly, the brain-training industry strongly disputes the conclusions of the consensus statement. And another large group of experts (some of them with ties to the industry) has issued a rebuttal in support of cognitive training.

While it's certainly premature to rule out the possibility that some sort of cognitive training will boost aging brains, more and better research will be needed to prove it. For now, the marketing of most of these programs is way out in front of the science.

The good news is that scientists know that the brain remains malleable, even in old age. That is, stimulating activities like learning a new skill or taking classes can strengthen neural connections and produce other positive changes in the brain. If you want to exercise your brain, study Spanish, take up Ikebana flower arranging, or learn a new game like chess or bridge. You may strengthen those neural connections in your brain, and you’ll almost certainly have fun.

Read more from Dr. Swartzberg in:

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Follow all of the Expert Voices issues and debates — and become part of the discussion — on FacebookTwitter and Google+. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.

John Swartzberg
Dr. John Swartzberg writes about health and wellness, particularly issues that affect overall public health in the United States. He is an internist and specialist in infectious disease and is chair of the editorial board of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter and He is also a clinical professor emeritus of medicine at the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health and the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine. When not writing and advising, he enjoys running, reading and playing with his grandchildren.