Critics of Brain Training

This entry is part 17 of 17 in the series Best Practices in Brain Training

In spite of the growing interest and demands for brain training it appears that there is a paucity of rigorous scientific evidence-based information regarding the effectiveness of these programs. Of all the brain-training providers, Posit Science appears to have the most well documented empirical evidence to support the benefits claimed for their products. Co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer, Michael Merzenich, who is known for three decades of pioneer work in brain plasticity research, head the company’s scientific team. Some attempts being made to investigate this unchecked industry are briefly described below.

Thomas and Baker conducted a critical review of 20 studies that tested for training-related structural plasticity in the adult human brain using MRI methods. Only one of these studies provided strong evidence that the brain-training task has particular effects to particular regions of the brain. They attributed this shortcoming to “limitation of the experimental design, statistical methods, and methodological artifacts may underlie many of the reported effects, seriously undermining the evidence for training-dependent changes in adult humans” (Thomas & Baker, 2012, p. 225).

A team of British researchers conducted a study to investigate whether regular brain training resulted in significant improvement in cognitive function. The participants for this study consisted of 11,430 adults aged 18 – 60, who participated in a six-week online training program specifically designed to improve reasoning, memory, planning, visuo-spatial skills and attention. Results indicated that although the study group showed improvement in these six cognitive tasks, there was no evidence to support that these skills were broadly transferable to other tasks, even if they were cognitively closely related. The conclusion reached was that: “the widely held belief that commercially available computerized brain-training programs improve general cognitive function in the wider population in our opinion lacks empirical support” (Owen et al., 2010, p. 1). This study has itself been criticized for allocating insufficient training time to participants and for the poor quality control (Harrell, 2010).

In 2008, the United Kingdom-based consumer agency ‘’Which?’’ asked the manufacturers of popular brain training programs Brain Training, Test and Improve Your Memory, Mindfit, Lumosity and MindSpa to describe the benefit of using their program and to provide scientific evidence to support their claims. Which? then asked three experts to review the specified benefits and claims made by these companies. These experts reached the conclusions that in general there was no empirical evidence to support the claims regarding the effectiveness of these programs. Additionally, in most cases the research design was flawed, the methodology lacked rigor and the results were not vetted through peer review. A more detailed description of the claims made by the companies and the experts’ deliberation is provided below. A similar conclusion about brain training programs was also reached by expert video game blogger Rachel Ponce: “But for all of the many video game developers who have jumped on this recent brain-game bandwagon, none have been able to show that their particular games offer real, scientifically validated cognitive effects” (Ponce, 2012, p. 1). Ponce made a thorough review of Lumosity and concluded that the benefits advocated and claims made are largely unsubstantiated.

Table 6. Reviews of Brain Training Programs

Brain training programs Price Company claims Which? Expert reviews
Brain Training (Which?, 2009, p. 1)  £110 The Nintendo exercises increase blood flow to the brain and can help stimulate memory. Research has not been published in recognized scientific journals. Increased brain activity in terms of blood flow does not provide the evidence that the brain is being trained or altered.
Test and Improve Your Memory (Which?, 2009, p. 2) £9.99 The training can improve thinking ability, prevent brain aging, and hone memory, language, concentration, visual/spatial skills and executive function. There is no evidence that the training helped to improve general mental ability.
Mindfit £88 Training can improve short-term memory, spatial memory, visual perception, scanning, divided attention, shifting, awareness, hand-eye coordination, time estimation, planning and inhibition. Research has not been published in recognized scientific journals. However, a rigorous unpublished study tends to support the claims.
Lumosity £4.99 a month The training can improve memory, attention, processing speed and cognitive control. The research methodology is flawed and the evidence does not support the claims regarding the effectiveness of the training. 
MindSpa £175  The program can help children and adults to generate alpha brainwave activity to improve cognitive performance. The research methodology is flawed and the evidence does not support the claims regarding the effectiveness of the training.

Source: Adapted from (Which?, 2009).

Research shows that the beneficial effects of brain training programs can be narrow in scope and be limited to the specific training tasks. Hertzog and colleagues noted: “if enrichment effects were operative at the level of broad cognitive abilities then it would make sense, from applied perspective, to train individuals on a test that is known to be a reliable and valid indicator of the ability in question, regardless of whether performance on the test, taken by itself, is of direct practical utility” (Hertzog et al., 2008, p. 9). Citing (Salthouse, 2006) the researchers also noted that: “one can only evaluate the benefit of mental exercise program interventions with very long term follow-up studies that show sustained and continuing benefits; one should not overgeneralized from positive results in short-term interventions” (p. 46).

Hertzog et al. deplored the fact that several firms are aggressively marketing brain training products that have not been empirically validated and reported according to scientific standards of good practice. They strongly argued for the establishment of standards for brain training programs: “The majority of software programs marketed as enhancing cognition or brain function lack supporting empirical evidence for training and transfer effects. Clearly, there is a need to introduce standards of good practice in this area. Software developers should be urged to report the reliability and validity of the trained tasks, the magnitude of training effects, the scope and maintenance of transfer to untrained tasks, and the population to which effects are likely to generalize” (p. 48).

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