Brain training fizzles in Britain

Computer-based brain training doesn’t improve cognitive skills, concludes a large study published in Nature. The study involved healthy adult viewers of a BBC science program. From the Wall Street Journal:

One group took part in online games aimed at improving skills linked to general intelligence, such as reasoning, problem-solving and planning. A second test group did exercises to boost short-term memory, attention and mathematical and visual-spatial skills—functions typically targeted by commercial brain-training programs. A third “control group” was asked to browse the Internet and seek out answers to general knowledge questions.

The conclusion: Those who did the brain-training exercises improved in the specific tasks that they practiced. However, their improvement was generally no greater than the gains made by the control group surfing the Internet. And none of the groups showed evidence of improvement in cognitive skills that weren’t specifically used in their tasks.

Critics say the brain workouts were too brief —  10 minutes a day, three times a day, for six weeks — to make a difference.

Modest benefits to cognitive abilities have been reported in studies of older people, preschool children and videogame players, the study’s authors say.

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  1. Posit Science (which develops brain-training software) not surprisingly has some other critiques of the study.

  2. Hi, Joanne.

    The most surprising thing about this study is that it managed to pass internal scrutiny and fact checking at the BBC and Nature. The premise of Brain Test Britain was flawed and ignored prior studies that have shown general benefits from brain training.

    As you say, the participants only trained for 10 minutes three times per week. And the training exercises weren’t particularly intensive. In 2008 a well-received study by researchers from the Universities of Michigan and Bern showed that intensive training on a demanding working memory task for 30 minutes per day five days per week improved intelligence. Why did Dr. Owen ignore the work of his peers when he designed his study?

    I also took the cognitive test battery that the study used — I’ve taken many cognitive tests over the course of my life and this particular set of tests didn’t measure up (the tests aren’t measuring mental skills that reflect real world day-to-day ability.)

    I’d invite anyone to try a proven brain training program and witness for themselves the cognitive benefits.

    Martin Walker


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