iStock/Talaj
Source: iStock/Talaj

The promise of brain-changing games is hard to resist. Who doesn’t want to improve memory and thinking and have fun doing it? Especially as you grow older? That’s just what products like Lumosity, the computer-based brain training program, aim—and claim—to do. The games target skills like working memory and attention, and they get more difficult as you get better at them. But a new, rigorous study published this week in The Journal of Neuroscience found that such brain-training programs had no discernible effect on the brain, on cognitive performance, or anything else.

The study was a collaboration between the laboratories of neuroscientists Joseph Kable and Caryn Lerman, both at the University of Pennsylvania. Kable studies decision-making and Lerman is an expert in helping people quit smoking. They wanted to see if brain-changing games could improve cognitive control and help people make better choices about risky behavior, and maybe even help battle addictions like smoking.  Like most people, the scientists were also intrigued by the possibilities of changing the brain. “If there are things you can do that would enhance your cognitive abilities, it’s an exciting idea,” says Kable. “We want to know whether it works or not.”

Because of their focus on decision making, Kable and Lerman were interested in games that target executive function, the umbrella term for capacities controlled by the prefrontal cortex that help us delay gratification, plan for the future, and do other cognitively difficult things. “It’s a set of brain regions that basically seem to be engaged whenever tasks are hard,” says Kable.  One of the important questions about brain-training is whether improving at the skills needed to master a particular game has any effect on other cognitive skills. That is a principle called “transfer.” Proponents of cognitive video games believe in transfer. Kable and Lerman reasoned that if brain-changing games increased activity in executive function areas or made those networks more efficient, people might also show signs of making better choices.

Their randomized controlled trial (the gold standard for research) included 128 young adults, which is quite a bit more than previous studies. Some participants trained with Lumosity (with the company’s cooperation) for ten weeks. A control group played a variety of similarly stimulating online video games that aren’t aimed at improving thinking and memory. In addition to studying choice behavior, the researchers also looked for signs of basic improvement in cognitive performance. And for the first time in a study of brain-changing games, they included neural imaging to look at activity in relevant areas of the brains before and after training.

The results were disappointing. There was no effect on brain activity, no effect on cognitive performance, and no effect on decision-making. (The participants who trained with Lumosity did improve on the cognitive assessment, but so did the control group and so did a group who played no games whatsoever. In other words, it wasn’t the game that was having an effect. Kable attributes the gains to the fact that everyone had taken the test once before.)

Granted, this is just one study. As the folks at Lumosity stated after the study was published, they never claimed their games would help with making better choices and it’s difficult to make grand claims from one piece of research. In 2016, however, the company behind Lumosity was fined $2 million for deceptive advertising.

It’s possible that brain-changing games will still prove effective for specific groups, like older adults at risk of cognitive decline, or people recovering from a stroke. Or they could be more helpful in combination with other forms of stimulation—a question Lerman would still like to explore. And other researchers, such as Daphne Bavelier of the University of Geneva, have found that a different sort of game—those known as first-person shooter games—do seem to show transfer. (I have written about their research here.)

Kable, however, is moving on. “There are other ways of helping people make healthy choices,” he says. The hope with cognitive training was that you could improve people’s executive function so that can stay strong when they’re faced with temptation or hard choices. Now he’s exploring a different possibility: “Are there ways of having people set up their lives such that there isn’t a need to power through it? You arrange things so that your habits are pointed in the direction that you want to be in and you don’t have to fight temptation or make difficult decisions. That’s the long-term direction I’ve been thinking about.”

If he finds some answers, I’ll let you know. 

References

Kable, J.W. et al. "No Effect of Commercial Cognitive Training on Brain Activity, Choice Behavior or Cognitive Performance," Journal of Neuroscience, July 10, 2017, 2832-16. http://www.jneurosci.org/content/early/2017/07/10/JNEUROSCI.2832-16.2017

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