When I was about 8 years old, Dad (who has always been quite ahead of his time in acquiring technology) brought home a computer. Our new machine was called a ‘Colour Genie’ and was one of the first computers to have a colour monitor.  It only had a few games that we loaded up via a cassette — remember those good old days?

A few weeks ago, one of my boys came up to me looking a bit puzzled and holding a music cassette. He’d never seen a tape before and had no idea what it was!

Time and technology move so fast that it is hard to keep pace, unless of course, you are my Dad!

Technology is having a big impact on the health industry and brain health is no exception.  Now that this blog is up and running and I’ve started to talk to people about neuroscience, one question that keeps coming up…

Does cognitive brain training work?

So, I thought I’d look into it a bit more…

Firstly, what is brain training?

It might be Google’s very clever response to my search interests in neuroscience and brain health, but ads for online brain training programs appear on my computer all the time … Lumosity, Brain Games, Fitbrains, brainHQ by Posit Science, and even ads to buy the Nintendo DS Brain Training system.

Alvaro Fernandex of SharpBrains (a neuroscience think-tank) defines brain training as:

the structured and efficient use of mental exercises … that can result in better and more sustained performance

Exercise to improve performance.  But does it work for your brain?

 

The case AGAINST online brain training

In 2009, the BBC ran Brain Test Britain which was an experiment designed to find out if playing brain training games really does have benefits that transfer to other brain skills, like memory, planning or problem-solving.

The scientists who ran the experiment — Dr Adrian Owen of the Medical Research Council and the University of Cambridge, and Professor Clive Ballard, director of research for the Alzheimer’s Society —  asked the public to sign up for a clinical trial, and 13,000 people did.

The brain training volunteers were allocated to three different groups:

  1. a reasoning group who completed training in planning, problem-solving and analysis
  2. a non-reasoning group that trained in short-term memory, attention to detail, maths and interpreting visual information
  3. a control group who played around online for the same amount of time as the other two groups.

After signing up to the experiment, the first thing brain trainers were asked to do was take a set of ‘benchmarking’ tests. These tests assessed specific brain skills that we all have, and gave the scientists an idea of each trainer’s ‘starting point’. At the end of this six week brain training period, they were given the same benchmarking tests again.

During the course of the clincial trial, each of the groups were asked to train for 10 minutes per session, three times a week for a minimum of six weeks.

An in-depth and super interesting (and geeky!) description of the experimental design, brain games (you can play them yourself!), results and conclusions can be found on the Brain Test Britan website.

Interestingly, after all the time, effort and braining training, the Brain Test Britain study found no evidence that the benefits of playing brain training games transfer to other brain skills.

Dr Adrian Owen said:

The result is crystal clear. Brain training is only as good as spending six weeks using the internet. There is no meaningful difference.

This will no doubt come as a surprise to the millions of people worldwide who do some form of brain training every day in the belief that regularly ‘exercising’ your brain with special tests and puzzles makes you better at everyday thinking tasks.

Brain Test Britain found that people who play brain training games do get better at those specific brain training games that they play. But this really only proves the old adage of ‘practice makes perfect’. There is no evidence that this transfers to the brain skills measured by our benchmarking tests.

 

The case FOR computerised cognitive  training

The BBC result has been contested by Alvaro Fernandex from Sharp Brains who say that those taking part in the BBC experiment just didn’t train enough:

A minimum “dose” of 15 hours total per targeted brain function, performed over 8 weeks or less, is necessary for real improve­ment. Training only a few hours across a wide variety of brain functions, such as in the “BBC brain training” exper­i­ment, should not be expected to trigger real-world benefits, in the same way that going to the gym a couple times per month and doing an assortment of undirected exercises cannot be expected to result in increased muscle strength and physical fitness.

Sharp Brains state that for brain training to ‘work’ the benefits must ‘transfer’ to everyday life. They propose that 5 conditions must be met for any kind of brain training to translate into meaningful real world improvements:

  1. It must engage and exercise a core brain-based capacity or neural circuit identified to be relevant to real-life outcomes, such as executive attention, working memory, speed of processing and emotional regulation.
  2. It must target a performance bottle­neck — the critical question to ask is: “Which brain function do I need to optimise?” Concentration? Memory? Regulating stress and emotions? The choice of a technique or technology should be driven by your goal.
  3. A minimum “dose” of 15 hours total per targeted brain function, performed over 8 weeks or less, is necessary for real improve­ment.
  4. Training must adapt to performance, require effortful attention, and increase in difficulty. This is thought to be one benefit of online brain training — your progress is monitored and training gets harder.
  5. Continued practice is required for continued benefits.

No harm intended?

An interesting article published earlier this year in the New Yorker concluded with Zach Hambrick associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University who was involved in a randomised, placebo-controlled study that found no evidence of intelligence improvement after working memory training:

And, really, what’s the harm? Working-memory training doesn’t do any damage, one could argue … If you are doing brain training for ten hours a week, that is ten hours a week you are not doing something else, like exercising…It also gives people false hope, especially older adults for whom this is a big concern. What if they do this and they don’t see any benefits? What do you think? You think, ‘There must be something wrong with me,’ or ‘I am a lost cause.’ ”

 

What do I think?  I don’t see the harm in doing online brain training if you enjoy it (and why do it if it isn’t fun?), you feel that it makes a difference, you’re willing to devote time to it. Oh, and you’re happy to fork out the money to sign up.

If you’re happy with all that, then have a go.

Personally, I’d rather not devote nearly 2 hours or more a week to playing games online … I’d rather find alternative ways to challenge myself cognitively – stuff like reading a book (!?), writing this blog, or running my medical writing business .

What do you think?  Have you trained your brain using online tools?

Leave me a comment below and tell me if you think online brain training improved your brain fitness?

 

 

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22 Responses to Online brain training. Does it really work?

  1. I have trained with Brain Resource Company’s “My Calm Beat” to develop my ability to put a break on my stress system through breathing at what is called my resonant breathing rate. This breathing rate is proportedly where my heart rate variability is highest and I am “in the zone”. I used and tracked it regularly for 7 months on my laptop as a biofeedback tool, as it monitored my heart rate while breathing at my resonant rate. I now use it either as an iphone app. without biofeedback or just breathe at my resonant rate when I become aware I am uptight.

    I believe as a result of using MyCalmBeat I catastrophise less, and can destress quicker.

    • Hi Jon. Thanks for your comment – a great recommendation for everyone else too.

      You’ve reminded me that I was once recommended a similar ‘breathing rate’ program. It was quite a few years ago now when I was having a particularly stressful time in a job. It helped greatly in keeping me calm and my emotions in check. Still left the job – but it lead to greater things 🙂

  2. Hi. I am Sarah’s dad and after reading her blog as I do with all of them I asked following question.

    How did you remember the Colour Genie and the tapes etc.
    Sarah’s response was “I take care of my brain”

    How we do it is not so important as the fact we do do it.
    What ever we do to ensure the brain functions as it should is something we should never give up
    .

    Dad

  3. I can tell you that the brain training I did after my brain injury made a DRAMATIC difference and had REAL results for me, particularly Posit’s Brain Fitness Program. It helped me to more than double my processing speed, improved short term memory drastically, and helped with overall executive functioning.

    Maybe a healthy brain does not benefit so much, but they defintiely worked for me, and, like you say, do not hurt!

    • Really interesting thoughts about the healthy vs injuried brain. You also had huge amounts of motivation and drive to stick at it! It is harder to be motivated to ‘prevent’ rather than ‘cure’ too.

  4. I really love neuroscience, is awesome all the goals We can reached With an adequate traininig.
    I had been used FAST FORWORD as a a tool to improve memory attention processing And sequencieng.
    An in addition Eventually i used Brain Builder to increase the speed of processing, just With only 15 minutes per Day!
    I love Brain Fitness

    • Thanks for the comment Paola – how long have you stuck at the 15 minutes a day? I get lost in the interwebs… not sure I could stick at it!!

  5. http://cetcleveland.org/default.aspx
    (working with those who have schizophrenia)

    This is an interesting sidenote. I am interested in the topic, but I agree with you. Computer games and exercises are just ONE possibility in a whole world of options to keep our brains sparking. Dancing, poetry, and music are great as well. I think computer games may get attention because they are a commodity and because they are useful for research. I’d love to seem money put towards researching such ideas as presented in the following. But I think computer games have potential as well. I enjoyed the blog today:)

    http://www.onbeing.org/program/learning-doing-being-new-science-education/transcript/970

  6. Hi Dr McKay and readers, just some thoughts:

    I read the book “The Brain that changes itself” by Norman Doidge and it describes the real-life usage of brain training (happen to be one by Posit Science) that improves the skills of patients of brain injury/disability. If it “transfers” for people who are affected, shouldn’t it logically “transfer” in general?

    Could it be that the experimenters had in mind to disprove right from the outset, hence affecting their experiment results? If not, it could be just that the beneficial effects may be less-pronounced in “normal brains”.

    • Hi Andrew,
      Thanks so much for your insightful comment.

      There is plenty of data to support both brain training working, or not working. Most of the disagreement comes about, like you’ve pointed out, around the idea of transference.
      There is a school of thought that a big part of success with online training comes from motivation – people who are injured or who turn to brain training with a specific goal in mind (delaying dementia, perhaps) are going to see different results from people who don’t have that drive.
      You need to train regularly and for a long time. And much of the effect (which is basically just learning) is seen in improvement AT the games themselves.
      A good paper discussing this is here (that was published after my post above) http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/beautiful-minds/2013/10/09/new-cognitive-training-study-takes-on-the-critics/
      Interestingly, the paper notes: “it seems as though the kind of person who is most likely to want to engage with cognitive training and stick with it for the entire regime is someone with a combination of (a) already high working memory, (b) high need for cognition, and (c) self-perceived cognitive deficits.”
      Like I said, I’d rather try other techniques – juggling has taken off here in Australia after a recent ABC show about called Train your Brain!

      Cheers

      Sarah

  7. Hi All,

    I had a brain injury (SAH) and my family always sung to me and they said I’d join in and tell them when they sung words wrong.

    My Daughter got me a cognitive book and would make me do a
    puzzle a day.

    Now I am on computer and OT’s wanted me put in a home and told my daughter to mourn her Mum the person I once was .
    So bring on cognitive games they cannot hurt you.

    Never Give Up !!

    Regards
    Win

  8. Please let me know if you’re looking for a article author for your weblog.
    You have some really good articles and I feel I would be a good
    asset. If you ever want to take some of the load off,
    I’d absolutely love to write some articles for your
    blog in exchange for a link back to mine. Please
    send me an e-mail if interested. Thank you!

  9. Hi Sarah,

    Great article and the key of course is real world benefits. I would imagine that many people who endorse online brain training including those that posted here are basing their progress on the metrics provided by the online game companies. Study after study shows minimal (if any) real world performance improvements from any digital program and in fact too much of it raises the alarm of increasing “digital dementia”. Even Alvaro from Smart Brains is a bit tainted I think since much of his funding comes from digital game making sponsors.

    The reality is that we are analog beings and as you point out so well, we need interaction with others and our environment to stimulate our brains to change – the digital interface provides too narrow a spectrum of stimulation. My program (www.combatbraintraining.com) was developed at the request of the US military to improve performance in combat and using non-digital neuroplastic training tools significantly improves real world performance in just a few hours, In fact most people typically experience an improvement in focus and mental acceleration after the first hour. Neuroscientists report that with robust targeted stimulation (non-digital to work all areas of the brain) the new changes, including more post-synaptic receptors, will solidify in as little as 20 minutes, No digital program can ever achieve this.

    I really like your site and you provide very useful information as to how to integrate neuroplastic changes using all areas of our environment. Lets connect and discuss more!

    All the best,

    John

  10. Hi Dr. McKay,

    I was wondering about this concept I’ve frequently encountered in the brain training debate, as to whether or not brain training “transfers”. I’ve seen articles that say brain training doesn’t work because improvements in the games don’t transfer to things like “complex reasoning tasks” or even mathematics and reading comprehension. It was my understanding that brain training was geared towards improving specific skills. For instance, a game in which you view a complex shape and are then required to accurately rotate that shape in your head would help with spatial reasoning. The real world application being, say, if you tend to get lost, your improved spatial reasoning in the game would improve your ability to manipulate a mental map of the area you are in, and so you won’t get lost as much anymore. When articles and papers say brain training skills don’t transfer, are they saying improvements in brain training games don’t transfer to unrelated mental tasks, or do they not even transfer to similar tasks in a different context? Does success in a brain training game geared toward spatial reasoning truly not improve spatial reasoning in real life?

  11. Hi Dr. McKay!
    It’s funny, after reading your article, I kind of feel like I just found out Santa Claus, and the Easter bunny don’t exist! I believed the claims, because they made sense to me. I encourage my family and my holistic health clients to train to improve brain function.

    Since I know relatively little about neuroscience, I was hoping you could help me understand how doing brain games like this would not improve plasticity. People keep reporting that training does not transfer into every day life skills, but doesn’t it still increase plasticity which should then help delay or prevent things like Alzheimer’s or dementia?

    Thank you for your informative and interesting website and articles!

    • Hi Sunny,
      The basic idea is that building ‘cognitive reserve’ might help delay or reduce the risk of dementia (just one of many factors that might help reduce risk). Cognitive reserve is the mind’s capacity to resist brain’s degeneration with ageing. People who have had very cognitively stimulating careers or who’ve engaged in ongoing education and cognitive stimulation appear to have great cognitive reserve. One way to build cognitive *might* be online gaming. BUT so far there is NO evidence the simply playing online games prevents AD (any claims otherwise are not be believed!!).
      There are so many factors in play and no silver bullet solutions.

      x

      Sarah

  12. I think that brain-training speeds up reaction times … and this can’t be bad. After all we have the ABC program http://www.activememory.com. Has there been any evidence that memory is enhanced by playing these games in any setting outside the program. ..?

    I would be interested in knowing if new, compensatory neural pathways can be laid down when there has been brain damage.’

    I doubt very much if raw intelligence can be improved by playing brain-games. Decision making, etc. is surely based on experience and learning.

    Some neuroscientists argue that there is no free will … I wonder if this is a common conclusion among these scientists.

    I think we have all witnessed someone who is not the “brightest knife in the drawer” become extremely expert in an area of their enthusiasm. Is the ability to become enthusiastic about something a part of raw intelligence?

    Also, many with Asperger’s are highly intelligent, even brilliant, in a particular area.

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