Application software and video games based on ‘brain-training’ have become a relative staple of the gaming industry in recent years. Popular programmes such as Lumiosity and Brain Age now attract millions of users daily. In a recent study carried out by researchers from the University of Ottawa, it was found that a significant majority of individuals believed that using ‘brain training’ software contributed to cognitive enhancement and reduced cognitive decline. Most notably of these individuals, older adults (who just so happen to be the target audience for brain-training software) were most likely to believe and support their effectiveness. And why should this be surprising when you consider the claims that those in the brain-game market have been arguing for years. After all if ‘brain-training’ is in the name, then surely that is what we are buying into? So given that there is considerable public acceptance for the effectiveness of brain-training software, the question remains whether the science behind the concept really adds up.
The truth is that everything that we do affects our brain. This is because the neurons in our brains are constantly making new connections based on what are experiencing. By attending to a brain-training exercise on a mobile device that for instance requires us to remember a sequence of letters or numbers, our brain is developing neural connections for that given exercise which will make it easier to complete over time. Research has demonstrated that your ability to remember the figures will improve, which is great, but does this improvement reflect an enhanced ability for your memory in general, or just for this specific task? Several independent studies have explored this question and the results have been fairly synonymous. For the most part there has been limited if any, transfer effects demonstrated through brain-training software programmes. This means that although they can contribute to benefits in terms of getting better at specific tasks, these effects do not transfer over as cognitive gains on a broader level.
If this is the general scientific consensus, then how can those in the industry justify their claims? A review carried out by the Stanford Centre for Longevity found that companies backing brain-training software often cite research findings that are tangentially related to their claims. Further, the SCL highlighted that a large proportion of the data used to support these claims are based on unreliable research.
Despite these issues, there have been isolated research studies that have raised interesting questions about the possible applicability of brain-training exercises. For instance one particular study demonstrated that participation in a specific brain-training exercise was associated with improved driving performance in a group of older adults. None of this research has really gathered steam and so the possible benefits have yet to be fully explored. Nevertheless the convincing majority of evidence appears to suggest that any cognitive benefits resulting from participation in ‘brain-training’ software will be minimal, if at all. At the very most, these apps and games can serve as a way to spend our time.
Ms. Niamh Allen, M.A. B.Sc.