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Brain-training games don’t really train brains, a new study suggests

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The first large study to rigorously examine brain-training games using cognitive tests and brain imaging adds to evidence that they are not particularly good at training brains and appear to have no more effect on healthy brains than video games. The study is another blow to companies such as Lumosity that have been accused of falsely claiming their programs can improve mental performance.

In a study published Monday in the Journal of Neuroscience, 128 young adults were tested for mental performance after playing either Lumosity brain-training games or regular video games for 10 weeks. Researchers saw no evidence that commercial brain-training leads to improvements in memory, decision-making, sustained attention or ability to switch between mental tasks.

In early 2016, Lumosity paid a $2 million fine to settle charges of misleading advertising. While its commercials boasted that Lumosity games are based on the science of neuroplasticity, the Federal Trade Commission and an open letter from 69 brain scientists insisted the research does not support claims that brain games make people smarter or stave off mental decline. While a study conducted by Lumosity in 2015 suggested that brain-training games improve performance on some mental tasks better than crossword puzzles do, other studies have shown no effect.

Caryn Lerman and Joseph Kable at the University of Pennsylvania were interested in whether brain-training games could help people control risky or impulsive behaviors. “You can predict using brain imaging data who will succeed and who will fail in an attempt to quit smoking,” Lerman explained. The “executive control network,” or ECN, is more active in those who will likely quit. The ECN is important for self-control, planning, and goal-setting. When we’re focused on a task and forming memories, the ECN is activated. When we begin to daydream, our “default mode network” takes over.

Other studies have suggested cognitive exercises such as brain games increase activity in the ECN, but few have shown translation of that increase into everyday activities.

“People who choose immediate rewards over long-term benefits are more likely to engage in risky behaviors,” said Lerman. To measure inclinations toward impulsive decisions in the study, researchers had volunteers rapidly make a series of hypothetical choices. For example, would they prefer to receive $20 now or $40 in a month? The answer seems like a no-brainer, but imagine if the question was instead: Should I eat a piece of cake now, or lose a pound this week? We make these kinds of decisions all the time, and our ECN is involved.

The researchers predicted that playing brain-training games that require memory and focus might activate the ECN of healthy young adults more than regular video games, leading to improved decision-making. Participants in the brain-training group played Lumosity computer games designed to improve mental skills like memory; for example, they would have to click on fish to feed them while making sure not to feed the same fish twice.

Meanwhile, the control group chose from colorful but simpler games: “The toy room has come to life, and these toys are anything but cute and cuddly. Punch your way through demonic dolls and terrifying teddy bears to escape the toy room of horrors.”

Volunteers played the games five times a week for half an hour. They were tested periodically for performance on a variety of mental tasks. In addition to immediate-reward versus long-term-benefit choices, participants were monitored for risk avoidance, memory, ability to stay focused amid distractions, and cognitive flexibility — for example, in a game of duck, duck goose, how quickly someone responds to “goose” after several declarations of “duck.”

The researchers found that both sets of gamers scored higher on the cognitive tests over time, and their brain activity during testing was similar. To determine whether this was a result of gaming or a simple case of improvement with practice, they also tested a group of young adults who did not play any games. All three groups improved over time at the same rate, suggesting that the volunteers just got better at the cognitive tests by taking them repeatedly. That means neither the brain-training games nor regular video games had any impact on the cognitive abilities tested in these healthy young adults.

The new study does not say these games won’t help aging adults, Lerman was careful to note. Any activity that requires playing close attention flexes our ECN, and it’s possible that older people may benefit from such exercises even though youthful brains don’t.

And it’s possible there are subtle effects that aren’t measurable within 10 weeks, said Mara Mather, professor of gerontology and psychology at the University of Southern California who was not involved with the study. People who have suffered from brain injuries or addiction might also respond differently.

“There’s little reason to think these games are going to make a difference for people who are otherwise healthy,” said Warren Bickel, a psychologist at Virginia Tech who studies addiction and was not involved in the study, but “there could be an effect that shows under more challenging circumstances.” He likened brain-training games to exercise. Someone who can do a lot of push-ups is not going to measurably improve from a very light triceps exercise. Someone who can’t do any push-ups might.

On the other hand, older brains are also less plastic, explained Mather. And there is evidence that literal exercise, hobbies and socializing lessen normal decreases in cognitive decline associated with aging, said Tim Bogg, assistant professor of psychology at Wayne State University who was also not involved in the study.

“What we’re all searching for is a silver bullet to improve our cognitive ability,” said Kable, and while the brain is certainly malleable, playing a game for a few hours a week probably won’t make you any wiser. In contrast, Bogg noted, “being actively engaged in life is much more likely to be associated with healthy cognition than sedentary time devoted to improving one's performance on a computerized game.”

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