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Study debunks 4 common myths about brain training and lifelong cognitive enhancement

If the media is your main source of information about brain training and cognitive enhancement, you will probably believe the following:

1) All brain training is the same…

2) …and it simply doesn’t work.

3) Commercial brain training programs, especially, don’t work.

4) How could they work? Genetics is destiny, aging is a predetermined process…so by age 60 or 70 or 80, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

If you tracked and analyzed the scientific literature around cognitive training, cognitive therapies, biofeedback, meditation, brain reserve and neuroplasticity in general, you’d know those 4 beliefs are wrong. They are myths that prevent a more nuanced conversation about brain-enhancing lifestyles and about the emerging brain training and neurotechnology toolkit.

Good news is, a just-published study should help debunk those myths–especially with regards to computerized cognitive training–and provide a better foundation to educate the public and to shape future research, policy and innovation.

This is the study, published in Neuropsychology Review: Enhancing Cognitive Functioning in Healthly Older Adults: a Systematic Review of the Clinical Significance of Commercially Available Computerized Cognitive Training in Preventing Cognitive Decline.

And this is what the abstract says: “Successfully assisting older adults to maintain or improve cognitive function, particularly when they are dealing with neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease (AD), remains a major challenge. Cognitive training may stimulate neuroplasticity thereby increasing cognitive and brain reserve. Commercial brain training programs are computerized, readily-available, easy-to-administer and adaptive but often lack supportive data and their clinical validation literature has not been previously reviewed. Therefore, in this review, we report the characteristics of commercially available brain training programs, critically assess the number and quality of studies evaluating the empirical evidence of these programs for promoting brain health in healthy older adults, and discuss underlying causal mechanisms…(Conclusion, bolded by Editor) Although caution must be taken regarding any potential bias due to selective reporting, current evidence supports that at least some commercially available computerized brain training products can assist in promoting healthy brain aging.”

The researchers searched the scientific literature for randomized controlled trials (RCTs) of brain training programs used in healthy older adults – this is important to note, as they excluded all other populations from the search (children, younger adults, athletes, patients with conditions from mild cognitive decline to Alzheimer’s to stroke).

They found 244 published articles, and from that list they selected 26 high-quality studies evaluating brain training programs which are commercially available. Out of 18 commercial brain training programs initially identified by the researchers, only 7 programs had been studied in those 26 studies. (Meaning that 11 had not been subjected to the type of scientific scrutiny–at least among healthy older adults– that the researchers wanted to see).

They then assessed 1) the number of published clinical trials for each of those 7 brain training programs and 2) the methodological quality of each study, adapting a methodology developed by Cicerone and colleagues in 2011. Programs with clinical studies were classified as possessing Level I (higher), II (medium) or III (lower) evidence. These were the findings:

Level I (higher): Posit Science (Brain Fitness Program; Insight), CogniFit (Personal Coach),

Level II (medium): Cogmed (Cogmed QM), Nintendo (Brain Age), My Brain Trainer

Level III (lower): Dakim, Lumosity.

In summary: Even older adults in their 60s, 70s and beyond can improve their cognitive functioning. But not all brain training programs are the same — they vary significantly by level of scientific evidence (and also in terms of what exactly they do), so consumer, caregivers and professionals should become well-informed buyers, neither buying into the latest marketing hype nor jumping into the overgeneralized–when not simply wrong–beliefs outlined and debunked above.

To learn more about brain training and brain fitness in general:

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