Does brain training work?

Lynne Kenney
Computer programs that promise to improve cognitive function have become all the rage in recent years, mostly on the back of the success of Nintendo’s ‘Brain Age’ game.

But what about the science behind the hype?

Certainly cognitive training has been shown to be effective in a few randomized controlled trials, but the evidence is still quite limited. The first large study in older adults without dementia failed to find an improvement in daily functioning from the training, but it did slow decline. Also, this study’s method has been criticized.

Other studies have found benefits for specific groups such as children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia. Whether advantages gained by these groups might be effective for others is a matter for debate.

The real challenge for brain training is showing that practicing one type of mental skill transfers over into other real-life benefits. Doing puzzles like Sudoku or completing crosswords probably only improves your performance on those specific tasks.

One study, though, does suggest that training working memory can increase fluid intelligence – what we use to solve problems which don’t rely on things we already know. The study, published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that gains in fluid intelligence were proportional to the amount of working memory training completed.

Verdict: Evidence for the benefits of cognitive training for everyday functioning is still very limited. Brain training software currently available is mostly ‘inspired by science’ rather than based on it. Treat marketers’ claims with extreme skepticism. Side-effects are probably limited to repetitive strain injury and a depleted wallet.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.