The growing field of cognitive training (one of the tools for brain fitness) can appear very confusing as the media keeps reporting contradictory claims. These claims are often based on press releases, without a deeper evaluation of the scientific evidence.
Let’s take a couple of recent examples, in successive days:
“It doesn’t work!” type of headline:
Reuters (Feb. 10, 2009) Formal brain exercise won’t help healthy seniors: research”
Healthy older people shouldn’t bother spending money on computer games and websites promising to ward off mental decline, the author of a review of scientific evidence for the benefits of these “brain exercise” programs says.
It works! type of headline:
ScienceDaily (Feb. 11, 2009) “Computer Exercises Improve Memory And Attention, Study Suggests”
According to the researchers, participants who used the Brain Fitness Program also scored as well as those ten years younger, on average, on memory and attention tests for which they did not train.
So, does structured brain exercise / cognitive training work or not?
The problem may in fact reside in asking this very question in the first place, as Alvaro pointed out a while ago in his article Alzheimer’s Disease: too serious to play with headlines.
We need a more nuanced set of questions.
1. Cognition is made of several different abilities (working memory, attention, executive functions such as decision-making, etc)
2. Available training programs do not all train the same abilities
3. Users of training programs do not all have the same needs or goals
4. We need to differentiate between enhancing cognitive functions and delaying the onset of cognitive deficits such as Alzheimer’s.
Let’s illustrate these points, by Read the rest of this entry »