Can a Game Train Your Brain?

As our population ages, memory issues and diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s become a growing concern. No one wants to grow old only to face a brain in decline and an inability to remember or partake in day-to-day functioning.

Enter in a fairly recent phenomena called “brain training” apps. Brain training apps are programs, similar to video games, which focus on improving a brain’s neuroplasticity – a fancy word for the brain’s ability to restructure itself after training or practice.

You may have heard of some of these commercial brain training apps – Luminosity, Jungle Memory, CogniFit and CogMed. These apps are designed to optimize cognitive function and improve mental fitness. Until recently, claims made by the app developers were looked at with great skepticism by the scientific community, with many conducting research debunking the claims and showing limited or minimal improvement in brain function at best.

However, a recent 10-year long study may just have lent credence to the brain training claims of improving memory function.

Brain Training May Reduce Dementia

Study results presented at the recent Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Toronto, Canada showed that one very specific type of brain training, which targets speed of mental processing, has decreased the risk of dementia.

Researcher Jerri D. Edwards of the University of South Florida, lead author of the study, found that out of 2,800 participants with an average age of 73.4 at the beginning of the study, only eight percent of the participants who received the speed training developed symptoms of dementia after 10 years compared with nearly 14 percent of the control group – those not receiving the training. That is nearly a 50% reduction in the risk for dementia.

The results do not validate the brain training industry as a whole, though. Some scientists believe that the brain training may have encouraged the participants to change their life in some way. Many participants had reported that the brain training inspired them to keep intellectually engaged.

While most scientists believe that much more extensive research is needed to draw conclusions about the legitimacy of brain training claims, some are very hopeful that these games will aid many in retaining memory function. Dr. Maria Carillo, chief science officer at the Alzheimer’s Association and one of the authors of the study said:

“One of the ideas would be is if you’re continuing to use your brain in a certain way, you’re actually benefiting the communication between brain cells, in a way that’s beneficial long term.” She went on to say, “The Alzheimer’s Association believes there is sufficiently strong evidence to conclude that lifelong learning and certain types of cognitive training may reduce the risk of cognitive decline. These new 10-year findings are evidence that it may hold true for dementia as well as cognitive decline.”

Many in the neuroscience community find the results promising, too. However, there are many unanswered questions regarding the study and what lead to the results. The community is suggesting more research be done before any definite conclusions about brain training and memory benefits can be drawn.

Video Gaming Shows Better Cognitive Improvements over Brain Training

In a 2015 review of video games and the impact on cognition, researchers C. Shawn Green of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Aaron R. Seitz of the University of California, Riverside revealed that playing action video games is correlated with improving cognitive functions, especially attention skills and brain processing. They observed that action video games featuring fast targets coming in and out of view require the user to make fast, accurate decisions. Such rapid decision making had positive cognitive impacts, especially above and beyond those of brain games, which only seek to improve cerebral cognitive functions.

Earlier research into video gaming, particularly action games, shows that such games produce greater neural processing and efficiency, aid pattern recognition, and improve attention functioning.

Researchers at Florida State University conducted a study where students were asked to play either the video game Portal 2 or Luminosity for eight hours. The Portal 2 group outperformed the Luminosity group on cognitive tests at the end of the study. Meanwhile, the Luminosity players “showed no gains on any measure.”

Commercial Brain Training Apps Likely a Placebo

Aside from the targeted gains in speed processing recently discovered in brain training, the neuroscience community as a whole is not sold on any gains in cognitive abilities by the use of commercial brain training apps.

In 2014, a group of nearly 70 researchers spoke out against brain games, issuing a review entitled “A Consensus on the Brain Training Industry by the Scientific Community.” Here is an excerpt from their review:

“The strong consensus of this group is that the scientific literature does not support claims that the use of software-based “brain games” alters neural functioning in ways that improve general cognitive performance in everyday life, or prevent cognitive slowing or brain disease. To date (2014), there is little evidence that playing brain games improves underlying broad cognitive abilities, or that it enables one to better navigate a complex realm of everyday life. Some intriguing isolated reports do inspire additional research, however.”

A group of psychologists at George Mason University were also extremely skeptical of the conclusions of drawn by some that brain training actually boosts fluid intelligence (the ability to respond to your environment through new data, not through learned responses). These psychologists performed a study concluding that the words “brain training” and “cognitive enhancement” would bias the results. They found that just knowing that one is engaged in brain training produced higher results on cognitive performance. The psychologists concluded that brain training is, in essence, a placebo.

The Bottom Line on Using a Game to Train Your Brain

Overall, study after study has shown that brain training apps do little to improve cognitive abilities. However, some improvements in memory processing speed may result from using these apps.

If you are using a brain training app, and enjoy doing so, then continue to use it. It is infinitely better than doing something passive, like watching TV. However, if it is taking time away from exercising, socializing, or reading (all known to improve brain function and cognition), then cut back and engage in a more healthy alternative.

Most researchers agree that the secret to better brain health in old age is diet, exercise, and a willingness to learn and experience new things. Saving your money by foregoing a brain training app and spending it in one of these areas might produce better results.


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