Bad News for Brain Training?

Losing your mental edge? We all do as we age, and we’ve all probably heard the advertisements for those “brain training games” that are supposed to improve memory and keep us sharp. It sounds great, but it turns out that the science behind these games is uncertain at best. Here’s the story in a nutshell:

The new generation of brain training games includes anything from video games to puzzles on the computer. The idea is that if you practice these things every day, it might help you with basic daily tasks, like remembering your to-do list, calendar, or even solving quick math problems. These games have been growing in popularity, and some researchers are optimistic about them. Others, however, are much less convinced.

In fact, just last week, researchers at the University of Illinois published a rigorous review of the studies that have been conducted on brain training games. Their conclusion was that: 1) the science on brain training games is not the best, because many studies have been conducted using only semi-good techniques, and maybe more importantly, 2) if you look carefully at the science that does exist, it probably suggests that brain training games do NOT really work that well. The basic idea is that these games might improve your ability to perform on the games themselves, but not necessarily on those quick math problems or to-do lists.

So what should you do? Well, researchers are working to improve brain training games, so keep an eye out for newer versions. In the meantime, these games definitely can’t hurt (anything that forces your brain to work is a good thing). However, reliable research also suggests that other things might work just as well, like being more social and exercising on a regular basis.

Tom LaRocca

Tom LaRocca, Ph.D., is a research associate and instructor in the Department of Integrative Physiology at the University of Colorado Boulder.