The false promises of brain training apps

This post is also available in Dutch.

“The brain is like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it becomes.” While not false in other contexts, those words aren’t referring to using brain training apps.

Photo by Tumisu (Creative Commons license)

With honeyed declarations of enhancing memory, focus, and critical thinking, Lumosity, Peak, and Elevate are amongst the top education mobile applications. Much like your (hopefully) regular gym sessions, “brain training” apps have long maintained that users can improve various domains of cognitive abilities with daily practice. Past studies tell us that, indeed, the brain can be trained for specific types of tasks (e.g., working memory, spatial memory, etc.), but how strong are these effects and for how long do they last? More importantly, the critical issue is not whether brain training can improve performance on whichever puzzle the app gives you, but whether those benefits transfer to real life applications or lead to general improvement in level of cognitive functioning.

Brain training apps may be more valuable for patients than for the general population. Peak was developed from a research study involving a game played by patients with amnesic mild cognitive impairment. In a memory test in 42 patients, those who played the game made about 33% less errors and improved their memory score by around 40%, retaining more complex visual information compared to those who didn’t play the game. Even Lumosity, fined for $2 million for false advertising, is based off of a task that was found to be effective in adolescent patients suffering from cancer or from Turner syndrome.

While the assertion that brain training apps are birthed from scientific research is seemingly impressive, a vital omission is that promises of improvement are based on single, unreplicated experiments. Original studies lack double-blind randomized trials including active control (patients trained in a different task) and passive control groups (patients who did nothing). Moreover, most studies have not been tested independently, and few independent studies have found either transfer or long-term effects of brain training apps. The majority of independent research merely found improvements within the same types of tasks or in very similar tasks.

An additional oversight is that all of these apps are being marketed to the general, non-patient population when they’ve really only been used in patients. A massive 6-week study trained 11,430 healthy participants on cognitive tasks aimed at improving reasoning, memory, planning, visual skills, and attention. Although enhanced performance was observed in every one of the cognitive tasks in which subjects were trained, researchers found no evidence that this had any effect on untrained tasks, even when tasks were cognitively closely related. Another study that used Lumosity in 128 healthy young adults concluded that there appear to be no benefits of the app, compared to those gained from playing standard online video games.

Brain training apps are certainly effective for drilling you on one type of thing, like memorizing word lists or improving visual accuracy, but have not yet been proven to aid in overall cognitive ability. Nevertheless, these types of apps could still be helpful for patients at risk of cognitive decline, recovering from stroke, or living with disabilities. As always, solid scientific empirical evidence should be necessary before something goes on the market.

 

Written by Christienne Gonzales Damatac
Edited by Annelies van Nuland
Translated by Jill Naaijen

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