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Big study questions 'brain training'

Millions of people spend lots of time and money on computer games that supposedly will make them smarter. But a big new study is questioning the value of these so-called "brain training" games.

In the largest study of its kind, Adrian Owen of the Medical Research Council's Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in the United Kingdom tested 11,430 healthy adults aged 18 to 60 wo were recruited through the BBC's science show "Bang Goes the Theory."

The volunteers first took tests to evaluate their thinking abilities. The subjects were then split into three groups. One group trained for at least 10 minutes a day three times a week for at least six weeks using a special computerized training regimen specifically designed to boost their reasoning, planning and problem-solving skills.

The second group played games that trained short-term memory, attention, visual-spatial processing and mathematical abilities. The third group was given web-browsing tasks that didn't test any specific thinking abilities. The brain-training regimens were similar to the kinds of computerized brain-training games sold commercially.

In a paper published in the journal Nature, Owen and his colleagues report that the subjects who did the brain-training tasks did get better at those specific tasks. But there was no improvement in their IQ or any other thinking abilities, even those that are closely related.

The findings also suggest that millions of people who are spending millions of dollars a year on commercial brain-training games in the hope of making themselves smarter are wasting their money.

Click here for a video of the researchers discussing the findings.

The researchers say the findings are no reason for despair. There are lots of things that people can do to help keep themselves sharp, such as reducing stress, eating well and exercising regularly to keep their bodies in shape. There's also some evidence that learning complex new skills, such as a new language, can help your brain. And the study is continuing for another 13,000 subjects aged 60 and older who will train for 12 months to see if the regimen works better for older people.

By Rob Stein  |  April 21, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Alzheimers/Dementia , Mental Health , Neurological disorders , Psychology , Seniors  
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Bad news for dummies…get used to it. You either have it or you don’t, and thank the baby Jesus that no one has figured out how to tax, embezzle, or otherwise hijack my exceptional and considerable brilliance. Other than assaulting it non-stop with commercials and crummy T.V. shows and movies, that is.
Good news for dummies…’American Idol’, ultimate fighting, Sex and the City movies, and Wheel of Fortune will always make you happy. For a super-brain like me, that dreck just brings disappointment as I contemplate how many idiots there must be out there mesmerized by the most patently ridiculous garbage that passes for entertainment around here. T.V. is practically useless, Hollywood movies are all dull and predictable, and music? Ugh, Taylor Swift is like fingernails on a chalkboard to smart people, so if you like her, it’s a good bet you are dim. If you want to know if you’re smart or not, try reading some Gore Vidal. If you can comprehend what the *!@# the man is saying, good show, you’re probably a genius.
Like me.

Posted by: DAMNEDGENTLEMEN | April 21, 2010 8:17 AM | Report abuse

I draw a different conclusion: browsing the internet makes you smart (at least as smart as the top-notch brain training software). Off I go!

Posted by: teplicky101 | April 21, 2010 2:35 PM | Report abuse

"Brain Training" is based on Gerald Edelman's work on Neural Darwinism. Basically, neuronal paths are formed and lost all during the lifespan of the brain. The stronger neuronal pathways last longer and they are strengthened by usage. The phrase, "use it or lose it" is completely appropriate.

It also explains why the subjects did not gain significantly in any other domain except those which they were "training" their brain for.

So there is no surprise there.

What is disturbing is the continued reliance on and uncritical acceptance of a subjective, normative curved "IQ" test as a measure of the efficacy of an intervention.

This research, like so much research reported research (sorry to say) lacks a certain amount of rigor and suffers specifically from instrument validity -that is the very instrument the researchers use (IQ test) is often invalid and unreliable. Therefore, any conclusions as a result of it's employment are questionable.

Also, Nature is not a peer-reviewed journal which means it was probably rejected by more academically and scientifically discerning journals.

Posted by: topwriter | April 21, 2010 5:10 PM | Report abuse

The outcome of the BBC study was entirely predictable for a number of reasons:
1. The games were just that – games. As we understand it, they were not designed to develop cognitive skills in any systematic and integrated way. It is possible to train cognitive skills with a program that is specifically designed for that purpose.
2. 10 minutes a day, 3 times a week is not enough time to rebuild neural pathways and to improve skills. Most serious cognitive skills training programs recommend at least 30-60 minutes 3 to 5 times a week.
3. The six-week duration of the study was also insufficient time. In studies with BrainWare Safari (, parents and teachers start to observe behavioral changes that are connected with cognitive functions after around 7 to 8 weeks of use. Substantial improvement in cognitive functioning, as measured by the Woodcock-Johnson Cognitive Battery, is observed after 10-12 weeks of use. “A Study of the Effectiveness of Cognitive Skill Therapy Delivered in a Video-Game Format” by Helms, D. and Sawtelle, S.M., Optometry & Vision Development, Volume 38, Number 1, 2007.

Scientists commenting on the study seemed to dismiss brain training that is fun and indicated that a more challenging program might have had an effect. These characteristics are not mutually exclusive. An effective brain-training program can be both fun and very challenging.

BrainWare Safari is both fun and challenging and has been shown to improve cognitive functioning by an average of over 4 years when used for 12 weeks. While the program is delivered in an engaging video-game format, it is serious cognitive training.

The most effective cognitive development programs incorporate the following principles:
1. Progressive challenge.
2. Comprehensive integration of cognitive skills related to learning.
3. Visual, auditory and other sensory integration.
4. Cognitive loading to drive skills to automaticity.
5. Frequency and intensity.
6. Engagement and motivation (fun).

Posted by: bhill2 | April 21, 2010 6:08 PM | Report abuse

topwriter is off the charts wrong when s/he states that Nature is not a peer-reviewed journal.

Nature is among the very top peer-reviewed journals across a wide range of fields.

just sayin'

Posted by: smugexpat | April 22, 2010 9:27 AM | Report abuse

Make sure you have all the facts about brain training. LearningRx helps kids learn every day. We do brain training that really works. Read a response to the recent Nature journal study here:

Posted by: tiffany4lrx | April 22, 2010 2:00 PM | Report abuse

The interpretation of this study is astonishingly over-reaching. The BBC researchers designed their own cognitive stimulation program, applied it at a very low intensity in healthy young people, and then saw no effect on cognitive function. To then claim that their data shows that "computerized mental workouts don't boost mental skills" is akin to saying "sugar doesn't help with a headache, and sugar and aspirin are both molecules, so aspirin must not help with headaches either." This is an elementary logical fallacy.

The only conclusion from the BBC study is that very limited amounts of everyday cognitive stimulation does not improve cognitive function. This is an interesting conclusion, and the study should have reported it as such.

Henry Mahncke
I am a researcher at Posit Science, where I design and test cognitive training programs.

Posted by: hmahncke | April 22, 2010 3:27 PM | Report abuse

There is a big difference between serious brain training programs based on peer reviewed research and casual brain games that have no scientific validation. Frankly, the market hasn't done a very good job of explaining what a real brain training program is, including the need for scheduled blocks of training time. Here is a site that helps to separate validated brain training programs from casual brain games :

Posted by: dcelliott99 | April 22, 2010 7:50 PM | Report abuse

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