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August 3, 2018

No Gains from Brain Games

Brain training does not translate into gains on similar brain tasks. There are better ways to stay sharp.

Brain training, online games designed to exercise cognitive skills, has become a popular way for people over 50 to try to preserve their memories and guard against dementia. The idea is that if you use it, you won't lose it.

A group of neuroscientists at Western University in Canada beg to disagree.

Your prowess at a brain-training app certainly won't do you any harm, but it does not seem to offer any broader cognitive benefits.

“We hypothesized that if you get really, really good at one test by training for a very long time, maybe then you'll get improvement on tests that are quite similar. Unfortunately, we found no evidence to support that claim,” lead author, Bobby Stojanoski, explained in a statement.

“If you're looking to improve your cognitive self, instead of playing a video game or playing a brain training test for an hour, go for a walk, go for a run, socialize with a friend. These are much better things for you.”

To see whether hours of training in one game could give someone an edge in a second game that challenged the same area of the brain, researchers first trained people in two test tasks, just the way a brain game would. A control group received no brain training.

Then, in a second experiment, they looked to see if that training made participants any better at test tasks that used similar mental skills.

Participants showed significant improvement on both training tasks, but they did not improve on either test task. In fact, their performance on the test tasks after training was nearly identical to that of the control group who received no training at all.

“Despite hours of brain training on that one game, participants were no better at the second game than people who tested on the second game, but hadn't trained on the first one,” said Stojanoski. “From a consumer perspective, if you hear an advertisement, ‘Do brain training. Do this thing for half an hour and you get a higher IQ.’ That's very, very appealing. Unfortunately, there's no evidence to support that claim.”

There are plenty of proven ways to help preserve your memory and brain function, he insists. “Sleep better, exercise regularly, eat better, education is great — that's the sort of thing we should be focused on. If you're looking to improve your cognitive self, instead of playing a video game or playing a brain training test for an hour, go for a walk, go for a run, socialize with a friend. These are much better things for you.”

This study is published in the journal Neuropsychologia.

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