Do Brain Training Games Work
January 2, 2014

Do Brain Training Programs Really Make You Smarter?

[ Watch the Video: Brain Training - Does It Really Work? ]

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

Apps for 'brain training' claim to use games or tasks as a way of enhancing cognitive abilities. However, a new study the Journal of Neuroscience suggests that these games may only improve a person’s capacity to perform the specific training task and lack evidence that this skill translates to other cognitive abilities.

Study researchers looked specifically at a brain training program that caused a positive shift in inhibitory control. Because the team only looked at the effects on inhibitory control, they said they were unable to determine if any improvement extends to other kinds of cognitive abilities such as working memory.

"With training, the brain activity became linked to specific cues that predicted when inhibitory control might be needed," said Elliot T. Berkman, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon. "This result is important because it explains how brain training improves performance on a given task - and also why the performance boost doesn't generalize beyond that task."

The team included 60 participants between the ages of 18 to 30 years old. The volunteers were split into two groups. The experimental group that was trained in a kind of self-control called inhibition control by having volunteers react to an on-screen arrow by hitting a correct button. In 25 percent of the trials, the program would generate a sound to inform participants that they should release the button. The control group performed another task that did not affect inhibitory control.

After performing either a real or control sham training session every other day for three weeks, the researchers saw performance improve in the training group but not in the control group.

The researchers tracked any change in participants’ brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which records changes in blood oxygen levels. The study team found that activity in two brain regions that regulate inhibitory control dropped during the training exercises but increased just before inhibition control.

The fMRI images pointed to three regions of the brain that showed changes during the inhibition control task in the trained subjects. However, the overall effect was relatively small. They added that future research should be focused on identifying protocols that might result in greater positive and lasting effects of the training.

"Researchers at the University of Oregon are using tools and technologies to shed new light on important mechanisms of cognitive functioning such as executive control," said Kimberly Andrews Espy, vice president for research and innovation and dean of the UO Graduate School. "This revealing study on brain training by Dr. Berkman and his team furthers our understanding of inhibitory control and may lead to the design of better prevention tools to promote mental health."

One of the pioneer and most successful brain training programs Lumosity is based on peer-reviewed science according to claims on the program’s official website.

“A 2013 peer-reviewed study from Dr. Shelli Kesler, an Assistant Professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine, shows that Lumosity training can improve the brain’s executive functions, which are a key driver of everyday quality of life,” a statement of the website said. “Dr. Shelli Kesler found that women who completed about 12 weeks of Lumosity training improved significantly on a common neuropsychological test (the WCST) compared to a control group of women that did not train. The training targeted skills such as working memory, verbal fluency, processing speed, and cognitive flexibility.”

Contrary to what the current study seems to indicate, Kesler and her co-authors said their results “suggest a transfer of the training program (benefits) to real-world behaviors.”