There are all kinds of "brain-training" programs out there that promise to help you stay smart even as you age. The problem is that there's little evidence that they work — but a lot of evidence that they are a waste of money.

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The Benefits of Brain-Training

Neuroplasticity, or the ever-changing network of the nerve cells in your brain, is a trendy topic right now. It explains why people can learn new skills, come back from brain injury, and combat cognitive decline. It also gives us a sense of hope that we don't face an inevitable, depressing mental slide downhill. Instead, they can learn new skills and regain lost ground. And perhaps there are simple programs that can help them.


One of the main complaints among older adults is losing the ability to multitask. This ability not only brightens everyday life — listening to music while filling out forms, or watching the news while making dinner — but is essential to activities like driving. And some studies show that active training can help with this.

One study had older adults either practice perform two tasks at once, or actively train with a specific program. They were to start out by devoting 80% of their attention to the first task and 20% to the second, then switch to splitting their attention equally, then put 20% of their focus on the first task and 80% on the second. By playing around with the way their focus was split, people in training were able to improve their ability to multitask, while those who simply practiced multitasking didn't improve as well. This kind of training can work for specific tasks as well as general skills. A computer simulation game trained older adults to speed up their reflexes and use better reasoning while driving, helping them avoid accidents.


A similar program trained adults to pay attention to a single auditory cue while more and more distracting frequencies were added. Over time, they were able to screen out the distractions. If this task sounds too specific to lead to actual brain improvements, there are also other other auditory studies.

One study trained older rats to single out an odd note from a grouping of notes. After some training, the researchers found that the rats were able to suppress distracting background information and ignore false positive noises. A look at the rats' brains found that they had more inhibitory neurons than untrained rats their age, and that they had increased density in the myelin that sheathed their neurons. In human terms, these rats had re-learned how to distinguish the sound they were looking for from background noise.

Brain training can also help the young. One study showed that practicing 12 different cognitive skills gave young people a slight increase in their ability to reason, and their episodic memory. They managed to maintain this increase for two years.


The Down Side of Plasticity

So neuroplasticity can be a great thing, allowing people to retrain themselves for certain skills and possibly — if we judge by rat brains — rejuvenate their brains. Now for the down side. There are plenty of programs that promise games which will exercise a person's memory and improve it over time. After a few weeks of training, people do get better at these memory games, but most of the time, their memory doesn't improve. They have learned a strategy for a specific game, not gained a general skill.

That's the problem with neuroplasticity. People can certainly improve... but much of the time they can only improve the specific skill they practice.


That can be solved with better-designed games, right? Bad news. There are studies that indicate a battery of cognitive training exercises can improve general cognition. There are also studies that indicate they do nothing of the kind.

One study involved 55 student recruits who were given twenty days of brain-training exercises. The study authors paid them to improve their performance each day, so they were motivated to learn. Half of them were given a training regime designed to improve simple memory. This regime wasn't designed to improve their brain in any way. The other half of them were given complex tasks shown to be associated with high levels of working memory capacity, which, in turn, is shown to be associated with fluid intelligence. Fluid intelligence is the name given to the ability to think abstractly, solve problems, and figure out relationships. It may not be a perfect measure of intelligence, but it's what we have. And, although the students given the complex tasks improved their working memory capacity, neither group improved their intelligence.


Let's say a brain-training regime has been tested and does work. For example, look at the attention-splitting exercise that helped people learn to multitask better. Although it worked, it did not take place in front of a computer. It took place in a lab, with technicians monitoring brain activity. This is how a lot of studies are conducted. A review, conducted by the University of Sydney, of brain training programs showed that, while working in a group with a trainer does sometimes improve cognition, working at home generally does not. So even if a program is effective and is teaching a skill that can be generalized, if it has been tested in lab conditions, it might be useless for someone at home.

Most importantly, there is no brain-training program that can prevent Alzheimer's or dementia. The one study of the effect of computer brain-training on patients with dementia found no statistically significant improvement in the computer-trained group over the control group. There was a slight tendency to do better on cognitive tests in the computer-trained patients with very mild dementia, but otherwise there was no difference whatsoever.


What Else Could People Be Doing?

A group of neuroscientists at the Stanford Longevity Center responded to the "brain-training" industry by pointing out the costs of training programs. These costs aren't just financial. The best way to keep mentally fit is to exercise, have people in one's life, learn new skills, and have a variety of experiences.

Brain training is, essentially, practice. It's hearing practice, noticing practice, problem-solving practice, memory practice, and attention practice. If a person gets these things in their life, there isn't really any need to train with a game. Brain-training, if it is thoroughly tested, could be valuable for people who need special help with one skill, or who don't currently have the time, resources, or energy to get out into the world. If, however, it gives someone an excuse to not engage in social, intellectual, or even physical activity, it can do exactly the opposite of what it promises.


Images: Medical Personnel Image: Center for Brain Health; Brain Image: Helmut Januschka; Nerve Image: National Institute On Aging

[Via A Consensus on the Brain Training Industry from the Scientific Community, Adaptive Training Diminishes Distractibility in Aging across Species, IUGM, Brain Training Reverses Age Related Cognitive Decline, Can Mental Training Games Prevent Alzheimer's, Working Memory Training May Increase Working Memory Capacity But Not Intelligence, Computerized Cognitive Training in Cognitively Healthy Older Adults]