Brain Training: It Works, and It Doesn’t Work

The IMPACT study which we report­ed on in Decem­ber 2007, fund­ed by Posit Sci­ence, con­duct­ed by the Mayo Clin­ic and USC Davis, has just announced pub­li­ca­tion at the Jour­nal of the Amer­i­can Geri­atrics Soci­ety. Ref­er­ence:

- Smith et al. A Cog­ni­tive Train­ing Pro­gram Designed Based on Prin­ci­ples of Brain Plas­tic­i­ty: Results from the Improve­ment in Mem­o­ry with Plas­tic­i­ty-based Adap­tive Cog­ni­tive Train­ing Study. Jour­nal of the Amer­i­can Geri­atrics Soci­ety, April 2009.

Com­put­er Exer­cis­es Improve Mem­o­ry And Atten­tion, Study Sug­gests (Sci­ence Daily)

- “The Improve­ment in Mem­o­ry with Plas­tic­i­ty-based Adap­tive Cog­ni­tive Train­ing (IMPACT) study was fund­ed by the Posit Sci­ence Cor­po­ra­tion, which owns the rights to the Brain Fit­ness Pro­gram, test­ed in the study.”

- “Of the 487 healthy adults over the age of 65 who par­tic­i­pat­ed in a ran­dom­ized con­trolled tri­al, half used the Brain Fit­ness Pro­gram for 40 hours over the course of eight weeks. The Brain Fit­ness Pro­gram con­sists of six audio exer­cis­es done on a com­put­er, and is intend­ed to “retrain the brain to dis­crim­i­nate fine dis­tinc­tions in sound, and do it in a way that keeps the user engaged,” Zelin­s­ki explained.” The oth­er half of par­tic­i­pants spent an equal amount of time learn­ing from edu­ca­tion­al DVDs fol­lowed by quizzes.

Com­ment: this is a very inter­est­ing study, in that it shows both that cog­ni­tive train­ing works, and that it does­n’t work.

What do I mean?

Well, it is time we move beyond this super­fi­cial dis­cus­sion on it works/ it does­n’t work, and we start­ed dis­cussing Work for Whom? Work for What?

1) It works: the inter­ven­tion (com­put­er­ized cog­ni­tive train­ing) showed cog­ni­tive ben­e­fits beyond the con­trol (edu­ca­tion­al DVDs fol­lowed by quizzes). This is sig­nif­i­cant both in that it shows that peo­ple over 65 can improve their men­tal abil­i­ties, and that can be done in scal­able ways, thanks to emerg­ing tech­nol­o­gy tools. Obvi­ous­ly more research needs to be done, but results like these would have been con­sid­ered impos­si­ble not so long ago.
2) It does­n’t work: those cog­ni­tive ben­e­fits were close­ly relat­ed to the trained audi­to­ry areas. The results don’t sup­port grandiose claims that the pro­gram “helps reju­ve­nate one’s brain 10 years” or sim­i­lar, which we hear all too often.

This is but one study in a rapid­ly grow­ing area (this one is pret­ty large, and mul­ti-site, and con­duct­ed by inde­pen­dent researchers). The key ques­tions are becoming:

- 1) who may ben­e­fit most from improv­ing on spe­cif­ic cog­ni­tive domains- audi­to­ry pro­cess­ing in this case?,
— 2) how can health­care pro­fes­sion­als sup­port patients from a pre­ven­tive and brain main­te­nance point of view (please note the study above had noth­ing to do with Alzheimer’s Dis­ease, but with the enhance­ment of cog­ni­tive functions)
— 3) how can con­sumers nav­i­gate the grow­ing num­ber of prod­ucts and claims?

For more on all this, you may enjoy read­ing these notes on Brain Train­ing: No Mag­ic Bul­let, Yet Use­ful Tool. Inter­view with Eliz­a­beth Zelin­s­ki, includ­ing:

- “The pro­gram we used, Brain Fit­ness 2.0, trains audi­to­ry pro­cess­ing. The peo­ple in the exper­i­men­tal group improved very sig­nif­i­cant­ly, which was not that sur­pris­ing. What was very sur­pris­ing was that there was also a clear ben­e­fit in audi­to­ry mem­o­ry, which was­n’t direct­ly trained. In oth­er words, peo­ple who were 75-years-old per­formed audi­to­ry mem­o­ry tasks as well as aver­age 65-year-olds, so we can say they reversed 10 years of aging for that cog­ni­tive ability.”

In short, if you are con­sid­er­ing buy­ing some of these new pro­grams, for your­self, your patients, a loved one…you do need to do a bit of home­work. Yes, it would be eas­i­er if there were more spe­cif­ic and cat­e­gor­i­cal answers…but for the time being there aren’t (apart from the gen­er­al guide­lines to stay active phys­i­cal­ly and men­tal­ly, man­age stress lev­els, have a bal­anced nutri­tion). We pub­lished this 10-Ques­tion Pro­gram Eval­u­a­tion Check­list to sup­port your deci­sion process.


  1. Elizabeth Zelinski on February 15, 2009 at 2:57

    Could you please pro­vide the source of the quote below? I would like to see it in com­plete context.

    The results don’t sup­port grandiose claims that the pro­gram “helps reju­ve­nate one’s brain 10 years” or sim­i­lar, which we hear all too often.

  2. Alvaro Fernandez on February 17, 2009 at 11:41

    Hel­lo Liz,

    I was refer­ring to the mul­ti­ple NPR ads that promise one can improve brain per­for­mance by 10 years by buy­ing prod­uct XYZ. The prod­uct devel­op­er (Posit Sci­ence) seems to base such a claim on your study, which, as I have said before, sounds mis­lead­ing to me. You do pro­vide a more accu­rate descrip­tion of the results of your own study in the quote I high­light above. 

    Please let me know if you want me to make any clarification.

  3. Stacey on February 27, 2009 at 12:47

    I am a strong sup­port­er of cogn­tivie train­ing ‑to me, the research is clear. What I’m strug­gling with as an edu­ca­tor is WHICH pro­gram would help my stu­dents the most in a 1:1 inter­ven­tion mod­el. I don’t have a lot of time with my stu­dents each week, so some­thing I can use a lit­tle at a time would be the best. I’ve con­sid­ered train­ing in PACE (avail­able through Learn­ingRX), but can’t find ANYTHING on your web­site about this company/program. I’d love some feed­back on PACE, if you have some.

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SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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