Tuesday, June 15, 2010

If I only had a (better) brain

Scarecrow, from the Wizard of Oz, desperately wanted a brain. Given the financial success of the brain training industry, it seems he’s not the only one hoping for cognitive enhancement. “Brain training” refers to the improvement of cognitive function by the regular use of computer exercises. Recently, it’s popped up everywhere, targeting kids through video games like “Big Brain Academy” to older adults through iPhone apps like “Lumosity”. While brain training companies are stuffing their pockets, the question remains: does it work?

A team of researchers from the UK set out to test how well brain training works. They teamed up with a popular science show on television and recruited over 11,000 healthy participants. The participants completed a general initial assessment of cognitive function (the “benchmarking” assessment), then started a regimen of 10-minute training session three times a week for six weeks. The online training sessions tested a broad range of cognitive functions: short-term memory, attention, math skills, and so on. These tests were designed to be similar to those found in commercial brain training programs. The researchers followed the progress of the participants over the six weeks of training and concluded the study with a final general benchmarking test similar to the initial one.

The good news is that the researchers saw a significant improvement on the specific tasks the participants trained on. The bad news is that this improvement did not extend to general cognitive function. These results mean that while you can improve at, say, a specific memory game that involves remembering the items in a scene, this won’t necessarily translate to better memory in your everyday life (where did I put my keys again?).

As can be expected, the study was criticized, especially by individuals with a commercial interest in brain training. Some suggested that the participants didn’t train long enough or often enough to see an improvement in general cognition. Others said that it’s not because these researchers didn’t observe an improvement that it’s impossible to achieve cognitive enhancement through computer games. However, it’s important to keep in mind that the study also scores some good points: the researchers looked at a very, very large number of participants, and the games used for brain training mimicked those that are commercially available.

Personally, the last thing I need is a reason to spend more time in front of the computer, and I like to think that fresh air is a terrific cognitive enhancer. What do you use to maximize your brain power? Coffee? Naps? Share in the comments!

Reference: Putting brain training to the test. (2010) Owen, AM et al. Nature 465:775-8.

5 Responses to “If I only had a (better) brain”

veach glines said...

Routinely meditating, reading, and exercising keeps my brain functioning creatively.

Thanks for sharing, veach! I've taken up meditation (it's been a little less than a year now), and I find it can do wonders for my brain.

veach glines said...

On this topic...I've "played" the Big Brain Academy computer-game, and agree with the study. My hand-eye speeds improve, I get better with practice at the "tasks", but that has not translated to my day-to-day (no increase in reading rate, not quicker at calculations, still don't remember whatsername...).

I would be interested in learning if computer games of this nature (or any, for that matter) have been studied in respect to delaying the onset of dementia or Alzheimer's (I have an elderly mother - it runs in her side of the family).

Good food, doodling, and lego.

Appreciation for great content. I’m certainly glad I had taken the time to learn this.

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