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Study: No convincing evidence that brain-training games lead to cognitive gains

Walter Boot, Psychology

A new study by a multiuniversity team, including Florida State University, found there is no convincing evidence that brain-training programs work to enhance cognitive abilities.

FSU Professor of Psychology Neil Charness and Associate Professor of Psychology Walter Boot, along with colleagues from across the globe, published an article today in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest that found there was not yet sufficient evidence to justify the claim that brain training is an effective tool for enhancing real-world cognition.

The team looked at the scientific studies cited by companies to support claims their brain-training programs yield widespread improvements in real-world cognitive performance. The team looked elsewhere as well — in all, researchers considered hundreds of published studies — but found no solid evidence to show that increased proficiency in brain-training tasks and games results in general cognitive improvement.

“Brain training operates on the idea of transfer,” said Charness, the William G. Chase Professor Psychology at FSU and director of the Institute for Successful Longevity. “Through the use of these programs, people may gain proficiency at specific tasks or games. But do those skills transfer to other tasks — do they help people perform better in other ways? The marketing of these programs suggests it does, but the evidence is lacking.”

Daniel J. Simons and Elizabeth Stine-Morrow, both of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, led the review. Also contributing to the comprehensive examination were Susan E. Gathercole of the University of Cambridge, Christopher F. Chabris of Union College and David Z. Hambrick of Michigan State University.

The team found extensive evidence that the brain-training programs improved performance of the games and tasks in the program. The experts found less evidence that the programs helped performance with other, closely related tasks.

“We found little evidence,” said Boot, “that training under these programs provided benefits to performance in distantly related tasks and very weak evidence that training improved everyday cognitive performance.”

The team also found that many of the studies suffered from design flaws. One of the most glaring was the use of inadequate control groups, which eroded confidence in the findings of those studies.

“We hope future studies will adopt more rigorous methods and better control groups to assess possible benefits of brain training,” Simons said. “But there is little evidence to date of real-world benefits from brain training.”

In their contribution to the review, Boot and Charness looked at studies dealing with brain training for older adults, including the ACTIVE (Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly) trial, one of the largest studies to ever examine brain training effects. Although ACTIVE was a large and important study, there, too, Boot and Charness found little compelling evidence that such training could lead to broad gains in cognitive performance or improved everyday abilities.

Boot and Charness called for further careful research using better control groups. They also advocated for a greater sensitivity to the possibility that with multiple assessments of cognition over many years, some observed differences between study groups may emerge due to chance alone. They further argued for the merits of comparative effectiveness studies that could help seniors decide how best to investment time and money on activities, for instance, aerobic exercise versus cognitive training.