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Brain Training on Trial: Passing Judgement

by on 2014/09/09

The global industry for products designed to monitor or improve brain health is currently estimated to be worth over $1 billion. That is expected to increase six-fold by 2020 (source: SharpBrains.com, “an independent market research firm tracking health and performance applications of neuroscience”). “Brain training” products, packages of games or puzzles that have generally been developed and marketed to improve the brain’s function, make up a large proportion of this industry. But does brain training train your brain?

Brain training products have been variously designed with a focus on a distinct period of the lifecourse, from early childhood, through the school years or into midlife and old age, or to address a specific learning impairment. In this post, however, we’re focusing on those products generally designed and marketed towards adults; products designed to enhance or maintain cognitive functions through midlife and beyond. While many researchers in the field are hopeful that interventions to reduce or delay the changes in our cognitive abilities associated with ageing might be possible (declines in our memory or reasoning skills, for example), there are a number of major issues to be addressed. One of those is referred to as transfer. That is, while people get better with practice on the games and puzzles often employed in brain training-type products, it is important to distinguish between improvement on very specific tasks through repetition, and improvements (or at least a reduction in decline) in our thinking and reasoning skills more generally.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of products currently on the market advertising their “brain training” credentials. Have these been rigorously tested or are those marketing them relying on bold but unverified statements to sell their products? That was one of the questions I explored recently in “Brain Training on Trial”, a show at the 2014 Edinburgh Festival Fringe as part of Edinburgh Beltane’s Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas (a short summary of the show can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fROGW49Z81Q&list=UUaemWVOehYht6pylL9zq4nw). If people choose to play such games because they enjoy them, that’s fine of course. They are, after all, specifically designed to be fun and/or addictive! A crucial factor though is in whether they are marketed purely on their entertainment credentials, or something more. For example, Nintendo stressed that their very successful product, Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training, was for entertainment purposes only and would not “improve the brain’s health”, highlighted by the consumer group Which? in their 2009 product review.

Given the vast number of products on the market, it wouldn’t be possible (or probably desirable) to review them all. Rather, I’ve decided to give a brief review of the current top 5 apps when searching for “brain training” on Apple’s App Store (from a total of 1653 results!). Other app stores are available, and some of the products listed below are also available for Android devices, for example. Other computer platforms beyond smartphones and tablet PCs offer another market again, so this very short list is not intended to be exhaustive, or even approaching that. In the brief summaries below, I’m not reviewing the games for anything other than what they claim to do, and whether they provide any evidence for those claims. Fun is subjective, so I’ll leave that for you to decide. Hopefully the short reviews will help to highlight what some of these games do or don’t say they’re for, and how easy it might be to follow any claims to some supporting evidence.

As the products often say “brain training” in their name, and all were in the “brain training” category, let’s see how they promise to train the brain…


Brain School

What does the blurb say? “This is a brain trainer with a difference ….. 20 amazingly addictive and FUN puzzles, each at 5 increasing levels of difficulty. Not only fun, but it will train your brain across a wide range of differing aptitudes such as; Verbal, Spatial, Numerical, and Musical …….. challenge your brain and make sure it’s functioning at it’s optimum potential! Ulimate Brain Trainer!”

Note the irony in marketing “brain training” software but not spotting your own typos.

The games promise to, among other things, “maintain neuronal efficiency” and “offset the effect of brain ageing”

Links to research? None, and no suggestion the software has ever been scientifically validated.

Cost. Free to download; offers in-app purchases.

Verdict… Fun, perhaps, even addictive according to user comments, but no evidence is given regarding the efficacy of the games with respect to improving cognitive function or reducing age-associated decline. Bold claims, but unsupported.


Fit Brains Trainer

What does the blurb say? “Fit Brains games were designed by Neuroscientists and award-winning game designers. They are both fun and beneficial to your brain health.”

“Fit Brains helps you train crucial brain skills such as memory, concentration, problem-solving, processing speed, language, and visual-spatial recognition.”

Links to research? The website notes that “Research shows that online training is an effective way to build cognitive reserve and increase brain performance. Fit Brains is advised by the top minds in the field and strives to make quality brain training accessible and affordable to all. Our scientific efforts are led by our Chief Scientific Officer, Dr. Paul Nussbaum. Dr. Nussbaum is a clinical neuropsychologist and national leader in Brain Health”.

The claims are repeated and expanded upon in the Science and FAQ sections, however, no links are provided to the research team, or to specific publications that they’re basing their claims on.

Cost. Free to download; offers in-app purchases.

Verdict… A very slick programme, and again, some bold claims. But it’s not ok to say “research supports” without providing some direct link to that research.


Joggle Brain Training

What does the blurb say? “Transform more than your brain. Discover new skills and abilities, and strengthen ones you already have. Many video games provide cognitive benefits, but Joggle is specifically designed to get your whole mind in shape so you can be your best.”

“COGNITIVE BENEFITS SUPPORTED BY SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH”

“Joggle® is the result of transforming scientifically validated cognitive measurement tools into fun and effective games. The Joggle® game is from Joggle Research, a company which has a legacy of producing high precision cognitive tests for high profile research. We collaborate with experts from top research universities and leading institutions to measure cognition. We also work with participants ranging from astronauts, to students and employees at large companies.”

Links to research? There are no links given to research which supports the claims made. The links to Joggle Research provide some information on the company’s suite of cognitive tests on which the app is based, but no evidence that playing the app has been show to improve cognitive function.

Cost. Free to download; offers in-app purchases.

Verdict… Another very slick programme, with equally bold claims. Although linked to a research company who design tests of cognitive function, there is little to support the “brain training” claims.


Elevate – Brain Training

What does the blurb say? The details on their website are very limited, so the claims are perhaps less ambitious than others. They do say “research-backed games” and “extensive scientific research”…

Links to research? …but they don’t say what that research is, or where you might access it.

Cost. Free to download; offers in-app purchases.

Verdict… Nothing to substantiate the limited claims.


Peak Brain Training

What does the blurb say? “Improve your cognitive skills and build healthy training habits with fun but challenging games, goals and workouts.”

“We started working with academics and scientists to build the best brain-training app out there, and we think we’ve done a pretty good job.”

Links to research? None.

Cost. Free to download; offers in-app purchases.

Verdict… The claims are definitely less than some of those above, but again, the mention of “academics and scientists” needs to be more than marketeering; where is the evidence that those researchers have hopefully helped to collect?


Please get in touch if:

  • you have a favourite brain training product that you’d like us to investigate;
  • you’re a developer and your product is listed above but there are more recent updates that we should include;
  • you can identify a product that isn’t listed and that there is some really solid evidence for.
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