Dr. Michael Schlitt, Neurosurgeon, Neurosurgery, Seattle

Does Brain Training Actually Work?

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The Internet has recently been abuzz with talks about Luminosity, a new website where, for a $14.95 monthly fee, you perform various exercises that “train” your brain.  For example, users perform small exercises that test attention span or memory.  Although Lumosity is the best-known of the brain-game websites, the “brain train” business is booming.  Competitors like Happy Neuron, Neuronix and Cogmed are all springing up, with claims ranging from brain fitness for life to a new hope for Alzheimer’s Disease.  The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services even began seeking comments on a proposal that would reimburse the cost of “memory fitness Brain Trainactivities”.

A lot of the focus on the brain fitness business has been on helping children with attention-deficit problems, as well as on improving cognitive function and academic performance in children and adults.  A truly effective way to stave off memory loss or prevent Alzheimer’s, especially with something as simple as a game or website, would be a “holy grail” of neuroscience.  The problem, however, is that the science of cognitive training hasn’t kept up with the hype around it.  Almost all of the marketing claims made by these companies aren’t backed up by any data.  Before you can conclude that something like this truly works, you need large national studies to take a look at it.

For hundreds of years, scientists believed that most brain development occurred in the first few years of life, while the brain was largely immutable by adulthood.  But in the past couple decades, studies on animals and humans have shown that the brain continues to form new neural connections throughout life.  However, it is as of yet unclear as to whether or not an invention that challenges the brain can really raise intelligence and stave off normal memory loss.  Recent studies suggest that certain types of game training can improve a person’s cognitive performance.  Last February, however, an analysis of 23 of the best studies on brain training concluded that while players do get better, increase in skill wasn’t shown to transfer to other tasks.

Other studies, however, have been far more encouraging.  Last September, the journal Nature published a study that showed a driving game did improve short-term memory and long-term focus in older adults.  The research found that improvements in performance weren’t limited to the game, but were also linked to a strengthening of older brains, helping them perform better at other memory and attention tasks.  Brain monitoring during the study also showed that in older participants, game training led to bursts in attention-associated brain waves, similar to those seen in significantly younger brains.

Back in January, the largest randomized controlled trial of cognitive training in healthy older adults discovered that gains in reasoning and speed through brain training lasted as long as 10 years.  The study recruited 2,832 volunteers with an average age of 74, who were then divided into three training groups for memory, reasoning and speed of processing, as well as one control group.  Over five to six weeks, these groups took part in 10 sessions of 60 to 75 minutes, while researchers measured the effect of training five times over the next 10 years.  Five years after training, all three groups still demonstrated improvements in the skills in which they had trained.  However, these gains did not carry over into other areas.  After 10 years, the only groups that continued to show improvement were the reasoning and speed-of-processing groups.  Researchers also found that people in the reasoning and speed-of-mental-processing groups had 50 percent fewer car accidents than those in the control group.

Earlier in 2014, the National Institutes of health invited applications to more thoroughly test brain training.  Researchers hope that it will help establish a consistent standard for determining whether this method works.  Though even as the science isn’t yet clear, entrepreneurs have taken a great interest in this marketing opportunity.

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