Brain train or another’s gain?

A recent study, “Putting brain training to the test” by Owen, A.M. et al. has received advanced online publication in Nature. The largest trial of its type to date it presents findings into the efficacy of “brain training” computer games.

“Bang Goes The Theory” is a BBC science programme. Researchers and the BBC Lab UK website retained a respectable 11,430 subjects from an initial 52,617 viewers of “Bang Goes The Theory” who had registered to complete the online study.

Subjects were aged between 18-60 and over six weeks completed a benchmark assessment and at least two full training sessions, with a mean of 24.47 training sessions. Participants were divided into three groups. A general non-reasoning group practiced tasks available with commercial brain training devices: memory, mathematics, visuospatial processing and attention…. The second group focused upon reasoning, problem solving and planning. The control group did not formally “brain train” and used a computer to find answers to “obscure questions” from six categories, using any online resource.

Comparison of the three groups post training across all four benchmarking tests yielded negligible changes. Indeed, the control group exhibited a numerically greater score for Visual Short Term Memory and Paired Associates Learning.

A “marginal test-retest practice effect in all groups across all four tasks” may be discerned from the results, write the authors [1]. Whilst improvement on tests that subjects participated in was significant, this gain was not transferable to other cognition. More so, cognitive task improvement was not transferable to benchmark tests of a very similar task nature with marginally different cognitive aims [2].

There were absolutely no transfer effects from the training tasks to more general tests of cognition, says Adrian Owen, a neuroscientist at the Medical Research Council (MRC) Cognition and Brian Sciences Unit in Cambridge, UK, who led the study. I think the expectation that practising a broad range of cognitive tasks to get yourself smarter is completely unsupported. [Source]

The notion of training our brain has steadily gained credence following Dr. Kawashima’s book Train Your Brain [4] and subsequent launch of “brain training” games by Nintendo and others. It’s important to stress Kawashima’s research was highly specific focussing on Alzheimer’s patients, and that claims made by vendors of such games are not promoted by Kawashima.

A member of Japan’s National Council, his research is recognised globally by fellow neuroscientists and is striking in that data gathered clearly indicate reasonably simple tasks such as easy arithmetic done quickly or reading aloud provide the most impressive results. Kawashima worked with patients exhibiting clearly documented and diagnosed impaired cognition, securing improvements of 20% backed up by corresponding fMRI imagery. However the trend driving the lucrative “brain training” market targets any and all with a tempting “use it or loose it” approach.

Clive Ballard of the Alzheimer’s Society said “This evidence could change the way we look at brain training games and shows staying active by taking a walk for example is a better use of our time.  Rebecca Wood of the Alzheimer’s Research Trust said: “This suggests that ‘brain training’ does not improve people’s cognitive ability.  More research will tell us if these games have any effect on cognition as we age. [Source]

To his credit, Dr. Kawashima refused the offer of a lucrative payment from Nintendo and directed the final fee he received toward the building of new laboratories. Following this study the BBC report that “brain training” and keeping a “fit” brain by purchasing such products from Nintendo may be explained thusly:

Leading game maker Nintendo said their Dr Kawashima brain training games did not claim to be scientifically proven to improve cognitive function.

In a statement it said the games require users to perform a number of fun challenges incorporating simple arithmetic, memorization and reading.

In this way it is like a workout for the brain and the challenges in the game can help stimulate the player’s brain, it said. [Source]

Quite rightly, others have pointed out the BBC Lab UK sample was self selected and that training time may have been too short.

I really worry about this study — I think it’s flawed, says Peter Snyder, a neurologist who studies ageing at Brown University’s Alpert Medical School in Providence, Rhode Island. Snyder agrees that data supporting the efficacy of brain training are sparse. Although some earlier studies — such as one funded by Posit Science, a brain-training software company in San Francisco, California — showed modest effects, Snyder recently published a meta-analysis that found little benefit. [3]

No doubt the discussion over the value of “stimulating” cognition will continue. Yet one must conclude it is essential we remind ourselves the brain is not a global entity we can train like a muscle. It’s incredible complexity and interactivity often manifests most convincingly when injured. Nor can we allow ourselves to insouciantly assume any type of “fitness” positively correlates with health.

From a clinical standpoint I do find one disconcerting omission within discourse surrounding the notion one may “train the brain” for optimal functionality. There’s much to be said about what we can do to improve memory and attention or to control impulsivity and distractibility.

I do wonder however, where the focus upon what we do not do with that most delicate aspect of ourselves and identity is within this brave new debate.

Paul Gallagher.


1.] Owen, A. M. et al. Nature advance online publication [sorry link no longer available] (20 April 2010) [PDF].

2.] Brain Training: Does it work? Nature Video discussing results:

[6min 30]

3.] No gain from brain training: Nature News;

4.] Review of Dr. Kawashima’s excellent book, “Train Your Brain”:

2 Responses to Brain train or another’s gain?

  1. Revel Mob says:

    Great post, thank you! Since we are on the topic of Brain Training, have you tried this recently released – free – BrainAgeTest iPhone app:

    What’s your mental age?

  2. Paul Gallagher says:

    From ABC’s Health and Well Being: The Pulse, Dementia and the role of mental exercise, Oct. 7th 2010;
    We all know that being active is essential if you want to stay healthy through your sunset years.

    And for some time we’ve also been told that a mentally active lifestyle can help keep our brains healthy as we age. Research has found mental activities such as crosswords, learning a new language and playing cards, are associated with less decline in mental function, as well as a lower risk of dementia as we get older.

    (Dementia is the progressive loss of mental functioning that extends beyond that of normal ageing. Its signs include memory loss, disorientation and poor judgment and Alzheimer’s disease is its most well-known form.)

    However, a new study has found that people with a more cognitively active lifestyle tend to decline rapidly once they start showing signs of dementia.

    This does not mean you should throw away your crossword. Lead researcher Dr Robert Wilson, a neuropsychologist at the Rush University Medical Centre in the United States, is keen to stress that a mentally active lifestyle isn’t dangerous.

    “The bottom line is that you spend less of your lifetime in a cognitively disabled state, which I think is what we’re all after,” Wilson says.

    The study published in the September edition of Neurology involved more than 1,000 people over 65 who didn’t have dementia at the beginning of the study. Participants were asked to rate how frequently they did certain mental activities and were followed up every three years for an average of 12 years…..

    Full story

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