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Lack of evidence for “brain training” claims

by on 2014/10/24

“We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do.” That’s how a group of the world’s leading researchers interested in the brain and how it ages signed off a consensus statement this week. In it, the researchers highlighted how the claims made by those marketing brain training games and products currently go well beyond the accrued evidence, and therefore seriously questioned whether the industry was fairly representing the benefits that these games might bring.

Trying to identify lifestyle and other factors that affect our mental functions as we age is a fertile area of research. By identifying what might protect or harm the brain, the hope is that we might be able to develop better interventions aimed at minimising cognitive decline, or at least provide clear advice for what people could choose to do or not do in order to protect their thinking skills. Brain training is part of that agenda, game-like products that are often described as workouts for the brain. If you train your brain with these games, you’ll retain (and possibly improve) your mental skills. That’s the simple idea, anyway.

The evidence for the efficacy of these products has been criticised before, but this week saw possibly the strongest denouncement yet. Around 70 of the world’s leading experts on the ageing brain – neuroscientists, psychologists, clinicians and others – produced a summary of their ongoing discussions, A Consensus on the Brain Training Industry from the Scientific Community. The statement was released jointly by the Stanford Center on Longevity and the Max-Planck Institute for Human Development. In it, the signatories were careful to make clear that our mental functions are adaptable with training, and that we need to better understand how we can capitalise on that to promote better cognitive health for everyone, but that “brain training” currently lacks a solid foundation for the more exaggerated clams made by the industry.

The statement is really clearly worded, so I won’t reiterate every point it makes (though I would recommend reading it as it provides an accessible overview on the current status of what we know in this area). The key elements though are the lack of replication of individual studies, the fact that where benefits of training are seen they are usually very specific but are then described as benefiting “brain health” more generally in the advertising blurb, and that the time (and money) people spend on these games might be better spent on other activities, including being a bit more physically active, for example.

At Research the Headlines, we’ve considered brain training in a couple of our posts (see Brain training: pain or gain?), most recently giving some advice for what you might look our for if you were choosing to buy one of those products (Brain Training on Trial: Passing Judgement). In the albeit short list of apps we considered in that guide, evidence to back up the often bold claims was weak, difficult to locate, or simply absent.

At the time of writing this post, the Guardian was the only UK-based paper to report the statement. The coverage in the US media has been equally poor. That said, the coverage which has appeared (which can be found in the Guardian, the Chronicle of Higher Education or Science, for example) does importantly give those from the industry the chance to reply, providing an element of balance. The lack of reporting of the statement more generally though contrasts with the much wider coverage usually afforded to individual studies showing the benefits of a specific brain training game being widely covered. It would appear a cautious statement of “careful now” is less appealing to the media than “games beat Alzheimer’s” or some variant of that.

To end where we began, the statement concludes with: “The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the best evidence to date, which is that cognitive health in old age reflects the long-term effects of healthy, engaged lifestyles. In the judgment of the signatories, exaggerated and misleading claims exploit the anxiety of older adults about impending cognitive decline. We encourage continued careful research and validation in this field.”

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