Brain Training for ADHD: Help or Hype?
Does brain training improve cognitive skills in ADHD?
Posted Dec 29, 2014
We’ve all heard the ads on television or radio: Use this app and get smarter. Improve your IQ! Boost your memory! Pay attention better! But do these products really deliver when looked at scientifically? And if so, are they helpful for ADHD?
Well, let’s take a look at a few of them and see if they offer anything for adults with ADHD …
Lumosity and ADHD
You’ve almost certainly heard about Lumosity. The app seems to be marketed everywhere. Web sites, radio stations, televisions. But does it actually work?
Lumosity is the most familiar brain training app, and it has been looked at the most in research and mainstream reviews. Two helpful resources on it are a January 2014 Psychology Today blog post by Dr. Jordan Gaines Lewis that summarizes research on Lumosity at, and a February 2014 review of Lumosity by Lauren Friedman at Business Insider. Freidman’s article provides details about the program layout, as well as its strengths and weaknesses.
So how about ADHD?
The types of cognitive problems that often come up in adult ADHD (allowing for individual differences) include reduced processing speed, multi-tasking (also called working memory), sustained attention, impulse control, and selective attention (the ability to effectively focus on one thing while tuning out other distractions). Now these sound like just the kinds of problems that Lumosity can fix, right?
Lumosity and CogMed: Research Trends
Despite the fun graphics and engaging marketing, the research trends on Lumosity so far have been … well kinda meh. The links above by Lewis and Freidman give the details if you’re interested, but the big take-away on Lumosity is same as it was in this blog earlier for CogMed (a similar brain training type of product): Both CogMed and Lumosity have problems with skill transfer to real life. That is, the skills developed by Lumosity or CogMed don’t usually lead to noticeable improvements in everyday attention to detail, real life memory tasks, or smoother relationships.
Some individual studies have been supportive of Lumosity and CogMed. But as a group (as a trend), the studies suggest that CogMed and Lumosity encounter similar obstacles: for most individuals they just don’t generalize much beyond the immediate computer exercises or skills being practiced. The gains in performance come from practice on the computer tasks but don’t lead to differences in life. Lumosity or CogMed seem to strengthen skills like memory, attention, processing speed, multi-tasking and so on (many of the kinds of things adults with ADHD struggled with) as they occur on the computer items, but these performance gains don’t consistently move past the computer, where people really want them.
Interestingly, a new (January 2015) study by Florida State University researchers found that individuals randomly assigned to play the video game Portal 2 tended to outperform those randomly assigned to train on Lumosity on tasks of problem solving, spatial skills, and persistence. It’s too soon to tell if that is just a single study talking or an emergent trend that favors video games over brain training on cognitive skill development, but for a product marketed to specifically improve your intellect, memory, attention and so on … well, you get the idea.
So bottom line on Lumosity and CogMed … they probably won’t hurt you (as long as you don’t spend too much money on them), but the chances of sharpening your everyday memory, drastically increasing your attention span at work, or adding 10 points to your IQ? These are very unlikely.
The New (Canadian) Kid on the Block: NeuroTracker
A similar product developed in Canada has begun to make its way into the USA. This one is called NeuroTracker. NeuroTracker’s developers state that it is not a brain game, but rather a scientifically-based training program. It was developed from a research lab in Montreal, and like other similar products, it focuses on developing skills for cognitive functions, like multi-tasking/working memory, visual and auditory attention, sustained attention, and so on. Its website has fancy, science-fiction looking graphics and testimonials. Interestingly, NeuroTracker has been used more in sports training programs than have the other products.
Developers of NeuroTracker hope to deliver where Lumosity and CogMed have struggled: by regularly transferring trained skills into real life benefits. But it’s too soon to tell if they’ve succeeded.
There are only a few articles yet on NeuroTracker, and nowhere near as many as those that have looked at CogMed or Lumosity. Some of these are theory papers, which don’t really provide data evidence in support of the product. Actual data studies on NeuroTracker are still pretty few and far between. Also, the articles I was able to find about NeuroTracker have all been written or produced by someone associated with its development or linked to the company that owns NeuroTracker. That is not by itself a fatal problem – especially early on – but to be accepted as a truly scientifically based product, it needs to be tested and deemed effective by other, disinterested researchers as well. So the word on NeuroTracker is … maybe.