'Brain Games' Do Not Make You Smarter

TUESDAY April 20, 2010 -- A team of British researchers reports that popular brain-training computer games do not improve a person's overall cognition.

In fact, the investigation, conducted by the Medical Research Council (MRC) in collaboration with the BBC television network, revealed that these brain games do little to boost the ability to reason, remember, plan or even engage in visual analysis.

The conclusions were presented by lead researcher Adrian Owen, assistant director of the MRC's cognition and brain sciences unit, in a news conference Tuesday and are published in the April 20 online issue of Nature.

"We did find that the training groups got much better on the game tests they actually practiced," MRC research staffer Jessica Grahn said during the news conference. "However, even among the people who trained the most, there was generally no translation to improvement in basic cognitive function."

"We're not saying it's bad for you," added Owen. "If you're doing it because it's fun, that's absolutely fine. If you're doing it to improve your mental function or IQ, that isn't the case. It doesn't make you any smarter overall."

The authors launched their study a year ago, via a popular British science show called Bang Goes The Theory.

From the show's viewer audience, nearly 11,500 healthy adults were recruited to participate in a six-week regimen of online brain-game testing that was facilitated by the BBC's "Lab UK," a Web site designed to enable the general public to participate in online experiments.

Male and female players were between the ages of 18 and 60, and through the completion of basic health questionnaires it was determined that all were free of any cognitive illness.

Participants were first randomly assigned in equal numbers to one of three groups: one was asked to play brain games that stressed reasoning, planning and problem-solving skills; one was asked to play games that focused on short-term memory, attention, math and visual spacing; and a third group was asked to simply surf the Web to answer a series of questions.

Owen and Grahn pointed out that their study did not use off-the-shelf brain games, but rather specifically developed test games based on the content typically found in store-bought versions. Other kinds of cognition-based activities, such as crossword puzzles and Sudoku, were excluded from the study.

After all players completed tests to gauge their pre-gaming cognitive skills, all were asked to play the brain games or answer questions a minimum of 10 minutes per day, three times per week, for a minimum of six weeks.

At the study's end, all completed a second battery of cognitive testing to assess changes in their overall "brain power."

The authors arrived at what they called a "clear" result: The games did not improve brain power.

There was no statistical difference in cognitive function improvements among the three test groups. And while brain-training games improved people's gaming skills, they did not appear to promote cognitive function in the real world.

"I would say that if you want to remember telephone numbers, practice your memory on telephone numbers," said Owen. "But don't expect that to help you with your shopping list."

Owen expressed hope that their work might bring some rigor to what had previously been an "enormous free public experiment" involving millions of users in the absence of scientific oversight.

And he stressed that the study only looked at healthy people without cognitive illnesses. "I really don't think this data speaks at all about how brain-training may be effective or not among people with memory problems or medical problems that may be related to cognitive impairment," Owen said.

That said, Grahn suggested that there might be other more effective ways to maximize brain function.

"There are things that we know that keep people mentally active," she said. Exercising, eating well, and keeping stress levels down while keeping one's mood up all could contribute towards improved brain function as part of an overall effort to try to maintain an "optimum balance in your life," she noted.

"Another thing is education," Grahn added. "Education can involve learning a new language or a new instrument, exposing yourself to different aspects of life."

"And if you think about the amount of commitment that's going on with all these activities," she added, "it's not that surprising that they would help."

More information

For more on brain function, visit the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Posted: April 2010


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