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Brain-training computer games do not improve decision-making or other thinking skills, study finds

This study’s findings are more bad news for the billion-dollar computer brain-training industry.

Lumosity’s programs did not make people’s brains work any more efficiently or effectively — beyond improving their skills at doing the programs themselves.
REUTERS/Eric Vidal

Brain-training computer programs are no better at improving people’s ability to make decisions, remember or concentrate than computer games whose purpose is simply to entertain, according to a study published Monday in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania pitted the popular Lumosity brain-training games against a set of computer games designed only for fun. They found that Lumosity’s programs did not make people’s brains work any more efficiently or effectively — beyond improving their skills at doing the programs themselves.

This study’s findings are more bad news for the billion-dollar computer brain-training industry. In 2016, Lumos Labs, the marketer of the Lumosity games, paid $2 million to the Federal Trade Commission for misleading the public — particularly the elderly — with unsubstantiated suggestions that its products could help protect against memory loss and even dementia. 

And earlier this year, a randomized controlled study — considered the gold standard of research — reported that computer brain-training programs did not provide any kind of cognitive “boost” to older people.

How the study was set up

The University of Pennsylvania researchers began the current study, however, believing they would see a benefit from brain-training programs. They thought such programs might help individuals reduce the tendency to make risky or impulsive choices  — and therefore might be a useful intervention for reducing unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking or overeating.

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For the study — a randomized controlled trial — they recruited 128 healthy, young men and women between the ages of 18 and 35. The participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups. One group was told to use the Lumosity programs five times a week, 30 minutes a day for 10 weeks. The second group was similarly instructed, but they were given computer games to play. Unlike the Lumosity programs, these games were specially designed not to tax the brain’s executive function or to increase in difficulty.

At the start and the end of the study, all participants took a battery of standard cognitive tests. They also underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure brain activity while they performed various decision-making tasks. 

The tasks tested were designed to give people choices between immediate smaller rewards and delayed — and less certain — larger rewards. 

At the end of the 10 weeks, no differences were found in the brain activity scans of the two groups. Nor did the groups display any differences in decision-making.

The study did reveal that some participants improved their scores on the standard cognitive tests. But those improvements occurred in both groups — and in a third “control” group of 35 young adults who underwent the cognitive tests a week apart without doing brain training or playing video games. The improved scores probably resulted, therefore, from the participants having taken the tests before, the study’s authors note. 

Limitations and implications

This study, like all studies, comes with plenty of caveats. Most notably, it involved a relatively small group of healthy, young adults. The study might have had different results if other demographic groups had been involved — or if the study had continued for longer than 10 weeks.

Still, independent (not industry-conducted) research that has been done to date on this topic has not been very promising, and suggesting otherwise may be keeping people, particularly older adults, from doing things that are known to improve cognitive function, like exercise.

As Tim Bogg, an assistant professor of psychology at Wayne State University who was not involved in the study told the Washington Post:  “What we’re all searching for is a silver bullet to improve our cognitive ability, [but] being actively engaged in life is much more likely to be associated with healthy cognition than sedentary time devoted to improving one’s performance on a computerized game.”

FMI: You’ll find an abstract of the study on the Journal of Neuroscience’s website, but, unfortunately, the full study is behind a paywall.