In recent times it has become increasingly popular to use ´brain training´, interactive, often simple, puzzles that help exercise your brain. Squarely aimed at the middle aged adults and those retiring its premise rests on making your brain function better and keeping it in shape. For those who have retired or no longer find themselves mentally taxed as they get older, these games can seem like a great idea. But do they work or are they just a gimmick?
A few years ago commercials on TV started to be bombarded with brain training games – take your average Z list celebrity who is still popular with the relevant age group (Judy Finnigan or Philip Schofield anyone?) stick them on a sofa and watch them have an immensely fun time on a cheap piece of plastic solving simple puzzles. Now, who on earth would buy this? Well, aside from the patronizing advert it did have one good pull – exercising your brain. With all of us now much more aware of the problems of dementia and mental decline it seems that there is now a large market for anything that can claim to stave off fading memory and cognition. Being that the brain is like a muscle, it needs to be kept in use. As business is booming the only problem is that the science behind brain training is not quite as persuading as the companies would have you believe.
Some brain training businesses have even gone so far as to say – erroneously at least for the moment – that using their product can be ‘a new hope for Alzheimer’s disease’. With such bold claims as this being banged around no wonder people are eager to at least give it a try. Dr Murali Doraiswamy, director at Duke Institute for Brain Sciences explains what the problem for these companies currently is. ‘Almost all the marketing claims made by all the companies go beyond the data. We need large national studies before you can conclude that it’s ready for prime time’. Although previous research has shown that it is not just in the early stages of our lives that our brains learn and take shape, and that we can still form new neural connections throughout life. However, can playing games, solving puzzles or learning a new language on what is essentially a video game form new neural pathways or put a stop to memory loss?
Recent studies have shown a mixed bag of results. In February 2013 an analysis was undertaken of the 23 best studies on brain training, chosen on their levels of comparability. The conclusion from assessing these studies was that players do indeed get better – but only on the tasks that they are practising with. This improvement in skill levels is not transferable to other tasks. For example, playing Sudoko over a long period of time will make you a better Sudoko player – but it won’t make you better at doing maths or improve your memory. Even in the given area these improvements are short term and not generalizable. Essentially the product is not doing what it says on the tin. As a method of enhancing cognitive function it’s a bust. Surely you would be better off playing Suduko in the newspaper than paying hundreds of pounds for what appears to be nothing more than a gimmick.
However, not all studies have been so damning. Researchers at the University of California in September of last year found that a driving game did improve short term memory and long term focus in older adults. Unlike the analysis above these results also showed that the improvements were not limited to only the game and that participants performed better at other attention and memory tasks, strengthening the brain as a whole. Most interesting was that the game training during the study caused bursts of brain waves in the older adults that resembled brain waves more common to much younger brains. Could there actually be some logic behind and truth behind brain training? In January the results of a large scale study threw up some equally interesting results. The ACTIVE study, Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (bet it took them a long time to think that up), involved 2,832 volunteers with an average age of 74. Participants were split into three groups, with each group tested either on memory, reasoning and speed of processing. There was also a control group, and all groups took part in 10 sessions of 60 to 70 minutes over five to six weeks, with researchers recording the effect of the training five times over the next ten years. Participants were assessed on the specific cognitive ability they had been trained in immediately after the training and then at a period of one, two, three, five and ten years afterwards. Participants were also assessed if their ability to undertake everyday tasks such as doing the shopping or cooking had improved thanks to the training. At the end of the ten years all participants had declined from their baseline taken ten years previously, but given the age of the participants this was not unexpected. However, those who had trained in reasoning and speed of processing experienced less decline than those in the control group. Participants who had undertook the training also reported that they had less difficulty in performing everyday tasks in comparison to the control group. After ten years there was no difference on the memory tests between the memory group and the control group. Although the memory tests would seem to disprove brain training’s purpose as a memory builder, the other results were more positive. If speed of processing can be increased it would be extremely beneficial, allowing many older people to live independently for longer.
Brain training is a rapidly expanding market and the extent of truth behind the jargon is still debatable. As with all big businesses it quickly becomes difficult to find the truth behind the layers of superficiality. Is it really worth the money, especially with so many brain training games and companies out there, as some are bound to be duds. Why not let the expert, Dr Doraiswamy, have the last say – “I’m not convinced there is a huge difference between buying a $300 subscription to a gaming company versus you yourself doing challenging things on your own, like attending a lecture or learning an instrument….Each person has to personalize for themselves what they find fun and challenging and what they can stick with.”