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Don’t fall for brain-game hype, cognitive experts say

Don't fall for brain-game hype, cognitive experts say
Creative Commons/Jon Feinstein
Your best bet for countering the effects of aging on the brain is to lead a healthy and active lifestyle — doing things like exercising, socializing, gardening and reading.

If you want to avoid mental decline in older age, don’t count on getting any cognitive “boost” from so-called brain-training video games and other products. There’s no good scientific evidence that they work. Your best bet for countering the effects of aging on the brain is to lead a healthy and active lifestyle — doing things like exercising, socializing, gardening and reading.

That’s the advice given earlier this month in “The Consensus on the Brain Training Industry from the Scientific Community,” a statement signed by 69 cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists at the Stanford Center for Longevity, the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and other institutions around the world. 

The document thoroughly scolds the $1.3 billion-a-year brain-game industry for making “exaggerated and misleading claims [that] exploit the anxiety of older adults about impending cognitive decline.”

“We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do,” the scientists write. “The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the best evidence to data, which is that cognitive health in old age reflects the long-term effects of healthy, engaged lifestyles.”

“Perhaps the most pernicious claim, devoid of any scientifically credible evidence, is that brain games prevent or reverse Alzheimer’s disease,” they add.

The statement also warns consumers not to fall for all the brain-game marketing hype — even when it appears to be packaged in a scientific wrapping.

“It is customary for advertising to highlight the benefits and overstate potential advantages of their products,” the scientists explain. “In the brain-game market, advertisements also reassure consumers that claims and promises are based on solid scientific evidence, as the games are ‘designed by neuroscientists’ at top universities and research centers. Some companies present lists of credentialed scientific consultants and keep registries of research centers. Often, however, the cited research is only tangentially related to the scientific claims of the company, and to the games they sell.”

The scientists don’t mention any brain-training products by name, but among the best-selling and most heavily marketed ones are Lumosity, Happy Neuron, Posit Science and Rosetta Stone’s Fit Brains.

Not necessarily transferrable

As the scientists point out, brain games target very specific cognitive tasks, but there is very little scientific evidence that getting better at the tasks used in the games transfers in any meaningful way to improvements in more complex, real-life mental skills, like memory, planning and problem-solving.

Even Dr. Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco (USCF), whose research has suggested that a certain type of brain-game may help improve broader cognitive abilities, remains cautious about making too-strong claims about his findings.

“He warned me several times that his findings will need more testing and points out that the data is tentative when it comes to how deeply it affects everyday mental performance,” writes freelance journalist Clive Thompson in a New York Times Magazine article, published last Sunday, that featured Gazzaley and his research.

Gazzaley, in fact, is one of the co-signators of the consensus statement, although “he pushed the group to use less pessimistic rhetoric,” as he was worried that negative comments in the document might dry up research funding, reports Thompson.

The scientists who signed the consensus statement also point out that brain-training research, like many other areas of research, suffers from the “file drawer effect” — the practice of researchers not reporting (or “filing away”) studies that have negative outcomes.

“The available evidence is [therefore] likely to draw an overly positive picture of the true state of affairs,” the scientists explain in their statement.

Points to keep in mind

The statement concludes with four recommendations for how we should think about the aging brain and “brain-training”:

  • Much more research is needed, the scientists stress, “before we understand whether and what types of challenges and engagements benefit cognitive functioning in everyday life. … Before investing time and money on brain games, consider what economists call opportunity costs: If an hour spent doing solo software drills is an hour not spent hiking, learning Italian, making a new recipe, or playing with your grandchildren, it may not be worth it. But if it replaces time spent in a sedentary state, like watching television, the choice may make more sense for you.”
  • Good, evidence-based research has shown that aerobic exercise can confer small but noticeable gains (or slow down age-related losses) in attention, reasoning and memory.
  • Don’t rely on the findings of single studies. “A single study, conducted by researchers with financial interests in the product, or one quote from a scientist advocating the product, is not enough to assume that a game has been rigorously examined,” explain the scientists. “Findings need to be replicated at multiple sites, based on studies conducted by independent researchers who are funded by independent sources.”
  • No studies have shown that playing brain games prevents or slows down the progression of Alzheimer’s disease or any other form of dementia.
  • “Do not expect that cognitively challenging activities will work like one-shot treatments or vaccines,” say the scientists. “ [T]here is little evidence that you can do something once (or even for a concentrated period) and be inoculated against the effects of aging in an enduring way. In all likelihood, gains won’t last long after you stop the challenge.”

You can read the consensus statement on the Stanford Center on Longevity’s website.

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