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Brain training: pain or gain?

by on 2013/09/25

The term ‘brain training’ has entered common usage in recent years, and though it can refer to a range of things, it predominantly describes computer-based exercises or games which are specifically promoted as protective for the ageing brain. If you perform a quick search for “brain training” on the internet you’ll quickly have a wealth of news articles and webpages referring to the idea. Studies of brain training are frequently reported in the media, given the interest in any product that might help people delay or even reverse the declines in memory and thinking skills associated with age. A recent study was reported in the Guardian under the headline: “Brain-training video games may help reverse cognitive decline in old age”.

What did the media say?

In the Guardian article, the study was concisely summarised. Adults of different ages were given a specially designed computer game to play. In one version, the game involved driving a car along twisting roads while separately responding to different shapes as they appeared on the screen; in the other version, the game involved just responding to the shapes with no driving element. As expected, the second of the games was easier, as it involved just one task. In the more complex task, in addition to the overall poorer performance, the multitasking deficit was greater in older versus younger adults.

However, after playing the game for 12 hours over a month (three 1-hour sessions a week), the study reported that 60-year-olds showed improvements in the game that brought them to a level of performance which was better than 20-year-olds on their first occasion of playing the game. Furthermore, these improvements were seen to transfer to cognitive skills not trained in the game, and were still apparent 6 months later.

While the Guardian report suggests the results support this type of training for older people, the researcher interviewed stresses that it wouldn’t necessarily be applicable to any sort of computer game.

What’s the science behind the story?

As we age, our mental abilities show certain characteristic changes, although there is variation from individual to individual in the exact timing and rate of any changes.  In very general terms, however, our memory might get worse and we would tend to perform other thinking processes more slowly(for a short introduction to cognitive ageing, click here). Researchers are therefore interested in identifying factors that might delay, reduce or even reverse these ‘normal’ age-associated changes. High on the list has been actively using the brain to avoid it declining, often described under the colloquial “use it or lose it” banner. Potential protective factors are sought from lifestyle or health behaviours that individuals might generally engage in (reading, visiting galleries or museums, doing puzzles, etc.), while other researchers are specifically designing tasks or games that are intended to challenge the mind, and subsequently protect it from decline.

The current study falls into the latter category. One of the main problems with this area has been a lack of transfer effects. That is, while people generally tend to get better at the specific game they’re playing, this very rarely transfers to benefits across a wide range of other cognitive skills which therefore limits the usefulness of such tasks.

What about the actual research?

The research team, led by Adam Gazzaley at the University of California, San Francisco, recruited 174 participants aged 20 to 79 years old to participate in the first part of their study to allow them to compare differences across age groups (in which the older adults were reported to perform more poorly at the multitasking version of the game). The training task, however, was conducted on a much smaller sample of 46 new participants, aged 60 to 85. Given three conditions of training (multitasking, single task or no contact control), each group numbered only 15 or 16 individuals. With small samples, effects can be skewed by a few individuals, and as with any trial, much larger numbers would be required to have greater confidence in the overall results.

Although the study showed some transfer effects (to working memory and sustained attention), changes in other areas were not found to be significant. The study was published in Nature, one of the world’s leading scientific journals, with Joaquin Anguera as the lead author. Incidentally, another study published in Nature in 2010 did not suggest transfer effects from brain training (albeit a very different style of intervention) with a sample of over 11,000 participants.

The bottom line.

There is a lot of interest in brain training given people’s fears of losing their cognitive skills as they get older. The study reported here used a very specific game, so it isn’t necessarily the case that other games would show similar benefits. In addition, in giving time to train on a game such as this, older adults would have to decide their own cost-benefit analysis: what other activities or engagement would you need to give up to have time to follow a training schedule? For now, the evidence isn’t strongly in favour of the benefits of brain training, so individuals might be encouraged to do the activities that make them happy (be they brain training like or otherwise), while more evidence is collected for their potential effects on the brain.

J. A. Anguera, J. Boccanfuso, J. L. Rintoul, O. Al-Hashimi, F. Faraji, J. Janowich, E. Kong, Y. Larraburo, C. Rolle, E. Johnston & A. Gazzaley (2013). Video game training enhances cognitive control in older adults. Nature, 501, 97-101. doi:10.1038/nature12486

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