Brain training apps don’t seem to do much of anything

But figuring out whether or not they work is almost as tough as creating them.
Artificial intelligence can solve many problems, but it won't replicate the human brain anytime soon. Flickr user DigitalRalph

Video games are pretty fun, but most of us don’t expect much more than that from entertainment media. But what if a fun video game also, conveniently, helped you succeed more in school and in life? That’s the idea behind the plethora of “brain training” apps on the market today. But just as quickly as they’ve hit the virtual shelves of iTunes and the like, the validity of their claims has been called into question. A new study out this week in the Journal of Neuroscience found that one popular app, Lumosity, doesn’t do anything for your brain—other than helping you get better at playing the game itself.

While one study on a single app can’t be used to make any sweeping conclusions on the benefits (or lack thereof) of brain training games as a whole, it does highlight an important point: It’s difficult not only to create the right type of brain training exercise for a specific behavior or condition, but also to figure out if that training actually works.

The logic behind these brain training apps is based on the idea that certain brain circuits are involved in a type of cognitive performance called delayed discounting, which is your preference for choosing immediate, smaller rewards versus waiting for a bigger reward, as well as one called risk sensitivity—whether you choose reliable or risky rewards. Scientists have found that choosing immediate and risky rewards is associated with unhealthy behavior like smoking, drinking, eating poorly, and generally being more prone to addiction. Apps like Lumosity work these same brain circuits—supposedly strengthening them—to help people focus more and avoid rash, unhealthy decisions.

But here’s the problem: There’s still a lot we don’t know about neuroscience and brain circuitry. The thing about Lumosity (and other brain training games and apps), says Joaquin Anguera, an assistant professor of neurology at the University of San Francisco School of Medicine who was not involved in the study, is that there are a number of different modules and games to choose from—and all of them work different neural networks in the brain. It could be that one app on the market does help improve one certain type of brain behavior, but we just haven’t pinned those results down yet. Scientists still need to do more research to figure out which circuits are actually associated with different behaviors, and it will take even more research to figure out whether certain exercises can help.

In this specific study, the researchers split up a group of 128 young adults into two sets. One group received 10 weeks of training with Lumosity. The other, the control group, played video games for 10 weeks. Before and after the 10-week period, the researchers gave them a series of cognitive tests to see how well each group would do. Both of them did indeed improve by the end of the study, but their improvements were, on average, exactly the same. Neither improved more than the other. In fact, the researchers also gave a third group—who didn’t receive any training at all—the same cognitive tests, and those participants improved about as much as the game players. The more you play Mario Kart, the better you are going to be at it. But the fact that you can kick Mario’s butt doesn’t mean you are going to do better in school or kick your smoking habit.

“There’s vast literature on decision making and neuroimaging to figure out what are the key brain areas involved and how do they all interact. But I’ve never seen a study that says, ‘If you play these games in this cocktail effect you are going to improve decision-making processes,’” Anguera says.

That’s what this study tried to accomplish, he says, but it still left a lot of questions unanswered. First, it was done in a very specific group: young, healthy people without any pre-existing conditions that might affect their memory. Joseph Kable, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania and lead author of the study, says that with a group this narrow, it’s possible that the participants were already functioning at such a high level that they couldn’t get much benefit out of the brain training. However, all three groups—including the video game group and the control—improved in much the same way. So according to Kable and his colleagues, there clearly was some room for improvement.

Anguera says the other problem could be that the training was not specific enough to cause a change. The key, he says, is that the game needs to target the right cognitive processes—in the right population—to help with specific deficits. “It’s just like medicine or a pill. It needs to be directed toward a specific group of people with a specific condition.” Doing that, he says, requires effort not just on the part of research scientists, but also on the companies themselves. And we aren’t completely lost when it comes to the brain, Anguera adds—we just need to figure out how to effectively target the areas of the brain that we know are important.

Based on this study and ones like it, these brain training exercises don’t currently have any solid evidence to back them up. The good news is that playing these games isn’t bad for you; it doesn’t decrease your cognitive abilities. But Luminosity doesn’t seem to improve them any more than playing video games, or even simply taking the same cognitive test multiple times. When it comes to neural circuitry and the manner in which our noggins are wired, there’s still a lot left to figure out. And if companies plan to market these games as a way to improve cognitive functioning, they need to work with scientists to develop specific trials to back them up.

For now, if you are debating between engaging in a brain training exercise or your favorite video game, maybe go with the game. Or skip the game all together and exercise your brain the good old fashioned way—by doing whatever work you’re trying to avoid.