What the health: Do brain training apps work?

17 Apr 2019

woman using app on her phoneThere is currently much hype around brain training apps, which are being used by tens of millions of people worldwide.

The alleged cognitive benefits of brain training tasks being transferred to other tasks that the users haven't been specifically trained for—but which engage the same psychological processes/brain regions—are yet to be established.

Indeed, companies such as Lumosity have been fined by the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) in the US for false advertising regarding the outcomes of their products.

Right now there are no large-scale, pre-registered, clinical trials assessing the efficacy of brain training apps. Although, there have been a number of small-scale studies that have found mixed results.

One study reported that a brain training game had a beneficial effect on cognitive processes, such as executive functions, working memory and processing speed, in healthy young adults. However, the authors said that due to testing over a short period of just four weeks they were unable to assess the long-term benefit of playing the brain training game.

Similarly, a randomised controlled trial of cognitive training using a memory game on patients with a diagnosis of amnestic mild cognitive impairment concluded that episodic memory robustly improved. The authors stated that larger, more controlled trials are needed to replicate and extend these findings.

On the flipside, a recent study published in Neuropsychologia found that brain training does not generalise, even to very similar tasks and called into question the benefit of cognitive training beyond practice effects.

Another study published in The Journal of Neuroscience found no evidence for the benefits of commercial brain training programs in decision-making behaviour or brain response, or for cognitive task performance beyond those specifically trained.

These are just four examples of many studies in this area, with many more to come. So far, we know that training on a task certainly makes you better at that task, but whether such training gains generalise and, to what extent, is still very much unknown.

The jury is still out.

Paul DuxAUTHOR: Professor Paul Dux is a psychologist and neuroscientist in the UQ School of Psychology. Professor Dux leads a group that uses cutting edge techniques to study the cognitive and neural underpinnings of human information-processing capacity limitations in health and disease. Specific interests are the mechanisms of attention and the efficacy of cognitive training and how it changes the brain to improve performance.

One of his current research projects is working to enhance cognition in people as they age. The research team are looking to recruit 200 healthy adults, aged 60 to 75, to take part in a paid study on cognitive training and brain stimulation. Find out more in this article and in the video below.