April 22, 2010

Study: Brain Games Don’t Make You Smarter

A new study has found that people who play computer games to train their brains are not getting any smarter. 

The six-week study consisted of participants from viewers of the BBC's science show "Bang Goes the Theory." Over 8,600 people between the ages 18 to 60 were asked to play online brain games designed by researchers to improve their memory, reasoning and other skills for a minimum of 10 minutes a day, three times a week.

This group was compared to another group of over 2,700 people who did not play any brain games, but instead spent a similar amount of time online and answering general knowledge questions. All the participants took an I.Q. test before and after the experiment.

The researchers said those that did the brain training did not do any better on the test after six weeks than the group who spent time surfing the Internet. The people who spent time online scored higher on some sections of the test than those playing the games.

The BBC paid for the study and published it online Tuesday in the journal Nature.

"If you're (playing these games) because they're fun, that's absolutely fine," Adrian Owen, assistant director of the Cognition and Brain Sciences unit at Britain's Medical Research Council and the study's lead author, told the Associated Press. "But if you're expecting (these games) to improve your I.Q., our data suggests this isn't the case," he said during a press briefing on Tuesday.

Nintendo said their D. Kawashima brain-training games did not claim to be scientifically proven to improve cognitive function. The company said in a statement to BBC that their games require users to perform a number of "fun challenges incorporating simple arithmetic, memorization and reading."

"In this way it is like a workout for the brain and the challenges in the game can help stimulate the player's brain," it said.

Dr. Adrian Owen, a neuroscientists at the Medical Research Council, told BBC news that "the results are clear."

"Statistically, there are no significant differences between the improvements seen in participants who played our brain training games, and those who just went on the Internet for the same length of time."

However, Steve Aldrich, CEO of Posit Science, said the study did not apply to its products. He said the company's games have been proven to boost brainpower and were funded in part by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

"Their conclusion would be like saying, 'I cannot run a mile in under 4 minutes and therefore it is impossible to do so," Aldrich told the AP.

Posit Science has been published in journals like the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which showed that their games improved memory in older people.

Millions of people around the world play computer games online that are marketed by companies like Nintendo to improve memory, reasoning and cognitive skills. However, few studies have examined the games' effectiveness.

"There is precious little evidence to suggest the skills used in these games transfer to the real world," Art Kramer, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Illinois, told the AP.

Kramer said some brain games had small effects in improving people's skills.  "Learning is very specific," he said. "Unless the component you are trained in actually exists in the real world, any transfer will be pretty minimal."

Kramer said people would be better off getting some exercise instead of playing brain games. He said physical activity could spark new connections between neurons and produce new brain cells. "Fitness changes the building blocks of the brain's structure," he said.

According to Kramer, some brain training games worked better than others. He said Posit Science made some games that proved to have modest benefits, including improved memory in older people.

Other experts say that brain games might be useful, but only if they were not fun.

"If you set the level for these games to a very high level where you don't get the answers very often and it really annoys you, then it may be useful," Philip Adey, an emeritus professor of psychology and neuroscience at King's College in London, told the AP.

Adey said that people probably are not being challenged if they are enjoying the brain games, and they might as well be playing a regular video game.

He said people should consider learning a new language or sport if they want to improve their brainpower. "To stimulate the intellect, you need a real challenge," Adey said, adding computer games were not an easy shortcut. "Getting smart is hard work."


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