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Can Brain Games Make You Smarter?

Can we “train” our brains to be brighter, sharper, faster?

A while back I wrote a post about a big study looking at “brain training”. The researchers wanted to know whether training programs that look like video games (like Brain Age andLumosity) could significantly improve brain performance on various tests. The results, in a nutshell, showed that while participants improved on the tasks they trained on (e.g., if the game involved ranking balls from smallest to biggest, the participants got *really* good at ranking balls from smallest to biggest), the improvement didn’t carry over to general brain function.Turns out ranking ball sizes doesn’t help you remember where you left your keys this morning.

Two years later, what’s the word?

I’m going to shift a little from how I normally do things (review a single article) and tell you about findings I learned about at the recent Aging and Society conference. At the conference, several researchers talked about brain training in the context of aging. We know that as we get older our cognitive abilities decline – we forget names and words, misplace our shopping lists, and process information a little bit more slowly. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we could just spend ten minutes a day playing games on our iPad and successfully counter this decline? Of course it would be fantastic. Not just for us, but also for the companies who are trying very hard to convince us to buy their products to improve our cognition.

The problem is that skills are specific. If you want to become a fabulous jazz pianist, you have to play the piano (preferably jazz songs, too). If you want to become a star ballet dancer, you have to practice ballet. If you want to become a better mountain biker, you have to mountain bike – road biking will improve your leg strength and fitness, but ultimately it won’t make you a better mountain biker. So why should things be any different for brain skills?

As it turns out, they aren’t. Two years later, nearly all the research conducted in the field of brain training is turning up the same results: people only get better at the tasks they trained on – the improvement doesn’t cross over to more general skills, different skills, or everyday life. In one study, a researcher compared a commercially available brain training program with what she called an “active control” – a group that simply played regular video games like Tetris. She found that the group who spent time on the commercially available brain training program actually saw some aspects of their cognition decline compared with the control group. Bummer.

Now don’t throw out your Brain Age game yet – everyone at the conference agreed that engaging your brain in training programs is better than not doing anything. And most of the researchers felt that while the programs don’t work now, it’s not to say they’ll never work. We are increasingly more knowledgeable about how the brain works, what happens when we get old, and what different training tasks do. So it’s quite possible that sometime in the near-ish future (don’t ask me when) we could see the advent of brain training programs that do have a significant and lasting impact on cognition.

Until then, there is one thing you can do to have a significant and lasting impact on your brain health… And I’ll tell you in the next post.

***

Dr. Julie Robillard is a neuroscientist, neuroethicist and science writer. You can find her blog at scientificchick.com.


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