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Study Debunks Claims of Brain Training Apps

Who hasn’t been seduced by the claims of better memory and quicker thinking? Who hasn’t downloaded a brain training app (or several) and tried (and failed) to set aside the five minutes of time each day needed to grow a bigger brain? Then deleted them, thinking, It’s on me. I just don’t have time or dedication to improve my cognitive function.

These apps offer people the hope of improving their cognitive abilities through the routine performance of various “brain games” that tap cognitive functions such as memory, attention and cognitive flexibility. But a recent study out of the University of Pennsylvania found that, not only did commercial brain training with Lumosity™ have no effect on decision-making, it also had no effect on cognitive function beyond practice effects on the training tasks.

A true case of it’s-not-me-it’s-you, then.

Seeking evidence for an intervention that could reduce the likelihood that people will engage in unhealthy behaviors such as smoking or overeating, a team of researchers at Penn, co-led by psychologist Joseph Kable, PhD, and Caryn Lerman, PhD, a professor in cancer research, examined whether, through the claimed beneficial effect on cognitive function, commercial brain training regimes could reduce individuals’ propensity to make risky or impulsive choices.

Lerman’s prior work had shown that engagement of brain circuits involved in self-control predicts whether people can refrain from smoking. This work provided the foundation for examining whether modulating these circuits through brain training could lead to behavior change.

“Our motivation,” Kable said, “was that there are enough hints in the literature that cognitive training deserved a real, rigorous, full-scale test. Especially given the addiction angle, we’re looking for things that will help people make the changes in their lives that they want to make, one of which is being more future-oriented.”

The researchers knew that people with stronger cognitive abilities tend to make less impulsive decisions on the kinds of tasks that Kable studies, which involve giving people choices between immediate smaller rewards and delayed larger rewards. They also knew that this behavior is likely mediated by a set of brain structures in the dorsolateral prefrontal area of the brain that have been associated with performance on the executive function tasks like the ones in the Lumosity™ battery.

“The logic would be that if you can train cognitive abilities and change activity in these brain structures,” Kable said, “then that may change your likelihood of impulsive behavior.”

But that’s not what happened.

The researchers recruited two groups, each with 64 healthy young adults. One group was asked to follow the Lumosity™ regimen, performing the executive function games for 30 minutes a day, five days a week for 10 weeks. The other group followed the same schedule but played online video games instead. Both groups were told that the study was investigating whether playing online video games improves cognition and changes one’s decision-making.

The researchers had two assessments of decision-making that participants completed before and after the training regimen. To assess impulsive decision-making, the participants were asked to choose between smaller rewards now and larger rewards later. To assess risky decision-making, they were asked to choose between larger rewards at a lower probability versus smaller rewards at a higher probability.

The researchers found that the training didn’t induce any changes in brain activity or decision-making during these tasks.

The participants were also asked to complete a series of cognitive tests that were not part of the training to see if the program had any effect on their general cognitive abilities. While both groups showed improvement, the researchers found that commercial brain training didn’t lead to any more improvement than the online video games. Furthermore, when they asked a no-contact group, which didn’t complete commercial brain training or video games, to complete the tests, the researchers found that the participants showed the same level of improvement as the first two groups, indicating that neither brain training nor online video games led to cognitive improvements beyond likely practice effects.

Although, in this study, the researchers found that commercial cognitive training alone would not have an influence on one’s decision-making process or cognitive abilities, they believe that it was still an avenue worthy of rigorous investigation.

“I think we’d all like to have better cognitive abilities,” Kable said. “And we all see ways in which the vagaries of where we grew up and what school we went to and who our parents were had these effects on learning at an early age. The notion that you could do something now that would remediate it was very exciting. I think it was just an idea that really needed to be tested.”

They’re still fun to play, though. (*Downloads app again*) Even when we learn, we never learn.

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