Do Brain-Training Programs Work?

I often get asked questions about the various brain-training programs available. Questions like “will these programs really help me improve my memory” or “will these programs help prevent Alzheimer’s disease”.

 You’ve probably heard these programs advertised on TV, radio, or online. Most of these brain-training programs involve computerized activities that require you to solve puzzles, or briefly remember information. Some people find these programs fun and enjoyable, others find them frustrating and challenging.

Many of these programs make broad claims about the benefits of using the program. Lumosity’s website says “sharpen the skills you use every day” and “just a few minutes a day for 3 brain games – that’s all it takes”. The website for CogniFit says the program “help stimulate cognitive functions and improve brain plasticity”.

So do these programs actually work as they claim?

Let’s take a look at just what these brain-training programs are claiming to do. Often these companies promote their products as being helpful for a wide range of problems, everything from improving your school performance, to reducing the risk of developing dementia. Even just thinking practically it is hard to believe that just a few minutes each day with one program can help with so many different cognitive problems!

Many of these brain-training programs claim to improve what’s called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is simply the brain’s ability to adapt and develop by forming new connections. Some areas of the brain are more adaptable than others, but our brain shows neuroplasticity every day. Each time we learn a new fact or a new skill our brain is forming new connections. This isn’t some incredible advance that these companies have figured out, it’s a normal brain function.

We know that our brains can learn. It makes sense that the more you practice a skill the better you get at it, right? Just like learning any skill, the research suggests the more you practice these brain-training programs the better you will get at them.

But the companies that advertise these products aren’t just claiming you will get better at the games, they are implying that getting better at the games will improve your memory and other cognitive skills in daily life.

What these brain-training programs claim to rely on is a concept of transference of learning. This is the finding that in some situations learning one task will make it easier to learn a second task. Transfer of learning only works well with tasks that are very similar, however. For example if you learnt how to use one type of coffee pot you will be faster in learning how to use a new coffee pot because the tasks are so similar. Learning does not transfer well to different tasks, however. Just because you can operate a coffee pot doesn’t mean you can fly an airplane. This sounds facetious I know, but this is the type of claim many of these programs make (i.e. you will prevent Alzheimer’s by playing a computer game). The evidence in the research says that just because you get better at a brain-training program does not mean you are going to improve your memory in daily life. Getting better at the brain-training program is not going to make it easier for you to remember where you put your keys, or to keep track of the list of groceries you need to pick up. There is even less evidence to suggest that these programs will reverse any cognitive decline or cognitive difficulties.

Interestingly, the concern regarding the validity of the claims made by these brain-training companies was so significant that the US Federal Trade Commission became involved. In January 2016 the FTC announced that it had charged Lumos Labs, the people who created Lumosity, with “deceptive advertising” regarding some of the claims the company made about Lumosity’s efficacy. Lumos Labs agreed to settle with the government and pay a $2 million fine while agreeing to change some of its sales and marketing practices. The FTC stated that Lumosity did not have the science to back up their claims about the benefits of the program on school performance, work performance, and reducing cognitive impairment.

It’s important to keep in mind that most brain training companies are privately held. In 2013 the market research firm Sharp Brains reported that American adults directly spent about $322 million on digital brain-training products. These products are not just a business, they are a big business.

When deciding if you want to participate in one of these brain-training programs I would encourage you to consider the costs and benefits. If you like these types of computer activities, great. Participating in activities that challenge your thinking skills and that you enjoy has health benefits. However there is no evidence to suggest that these programs (which you pay for) are better than free activities (like regular reading) at preventing cognitive decline or improving cognitive performance.

If you’re looking at ways to maintain your cognitive health I would encourage you to stick with what we know works and that includes regular physical exercise, eating a healthy diet, participating in social activities (like spending time with friends and family), and participating in activities that keep your brain active (like reading a library book or participating in hobbies that you enjoy).