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‘Brain-training’ games do not boost cognitive skills among older adults, study finds

“The thing that seniors in particular should be concerned about is, if I can get very good at crossword puzzles, is that going to help me remember where my keys are? And the answer is probably no.”

The idea that brain-training games can combat age-related cognitive decline hinges on something called “far transfer.”
REUTERS/Carlos Barria

A recent study offers yet more evidence that commercial “brain-training” computer games do not give the brain any kind of extra cognitive “boost” in old age.

This is more bad news for the billion-dollar brain-training industry, which already took a blow last year when the Federal Trade Commission fined Lumos Labs, the manufacturer of the widely advertised Luminosity brain-training games, $2 million for deceiving customers with unsubstantiated suggestions that its products could help protect against memory loss and even dementia.

The idea that brain-training games can combat age-related cognitive decline hinges on something called “far transfer” — “the notion that training specific cognitive functions that support the performance of a variety of tasks (e.g., working memory) can lead to improvements on many tasks beyond the trained one,” the authors of the new study explain.

But research suggesting that purposeful cognitive training can help with far transfer — and that it then has a positive effect on everyday tasks — has been controversial, the authors also point out.

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So they decided to conduct their own randomized controlled trial to see what cognitive effects, if any, a brain-training game might have on older adults.

Study details

Led by Neil Charness, a psychologist at Florida State University, the researchers recruited 60 adults, aged 65 and older. Prescreening of the study’s participants showed they were all “cognitively intact.”

After undergoing tests of their working memory and other mental abilities, such as reasoning and processing speed, the participants were randomly assigned to either an intervention or a control group. Those in the intervention group were given a tablet computer with a preloaded application that consisted of seven cognitive-training video games. They were asked to play three of the games daily (including weekends) for 45 minutes per session. They kept journals to record their playtime.

The control group also received tablets. Theirs, however, were preloaded with three common puzzle games — crosswords, Sudoku puzzles and word searches — which they were also asked to play for 45 minutes daily. 

After one month, all the participants had their cognitive abilities retested. The results showed no meaningful improvements in either group.

What did improve, at least sometimes, was the intervention group’s skill at playing the computer games, such as one that required them to remember a sequence of items.

Best bet: exercise

But getting better at that game (or, for that matter, at doing crossword puzzles) had no practical ramifications, the study’s authors point out.

“It’s possible to train people to become very good at tasks that you would normally consider general working memory tasks: memorizing 70, 80, even 100 digits,” explained Charness in a released statement. “But these skills tend to be very specific and not show a lot of transfer. The thing that seniors in particular should be concerned about is, if I can get very good at crossword puzzles, is that going to help me remember where my keys are? And the answer is probably no.”

“I wouldn’t come away from our [study] totally discouraged,” Charness added. “It’s another piece of the puzzle that we’re all trying to assemble. It’s discouraging in the sense that we can’t find far transfer, and that seems to be a fairly consistent finding in research. But if your real goal is to improve cognitive function and brain games are not helping, then maybe you are better off getting aerobic exercise rather than sitting in front of the computer playing these games.”

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Indeed, plenty of research has demonstrated that regular, sustained aerobic exercise — including activities as simple as walking or dancing — promotes structural changes in the brain that appear to help retain cognitive function in old age.

FMI: The current study was published in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, where it can be read in full.