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Does Brain Training Work? Depends. Better Question is, How, When, for Whom Can Brain Training Work?

brain training question and answersYou may have read a new wave of arti­cles claim­ing that “brain train­ing doesn’t work”, based on the recent research meta-ana­lyt­ic review Is Work­ing Mem­o­ry Train­ing Effec­tive? (Devel­op­men­tal Psy­chol­o­gy, May 2012), whose abstract says:

It has been sug­gest­ed that work­ing mem­o­ry train­ing pro­grams are effec­tive both as treat­ments for atten­tion-deficit/hy­per­ac­tiv­i­ty dis­or­der (ADHD) and oth­er cog­ni­tive dis­or­ders in chil­dren and as a tool to improve cog­ni­tive abil­i­ty and scholas­tic attain­ment in typ­i­cal­ly devel­op­ing chil­dren and adults…The authors con­clude that mem­o­ry train­ing pro­grams appear to pro­duce short-term, spe­cif­ic train­ing effects that do not gen­er­al­ize.” (Review is avail­able Here)

Sev­er­al col­leagues have asked for com­ment, and I have point­ed out sev­er­al weak­ness­es in the review that pre­vent it from cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly answer­ing the pur­port­ed ques­tion “Is Work­ing Mem­o­ry Train­ing Effec­tive.” First, it seems to ana­lyze  only exag­ger­at­ed claims instead of more spe­cif­ic and sol­id ones (which makes it much eas­i­er to attack the claims, same as if we said, “It has been sug­gest­ed that cars can fly. How­ev­er, evi­dence reviewed does not sup­port that claim. Hence, cars don’t work”). Sec­ond, the review mix­es very dif­fer­ent pro­grams into one pool. And, third, it seems to ignore the emerg­ing under­stand­ing of the real val­ue AND lim­i­ta­tion under­ly­ing “seri­ous brain train­ing” or neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty-based inter­ven­tions, from med­i­ta­tion to cog­ni­tive behav­ioral ther­a­py to bio/EEG-feed­back to cog­ni­tive train­ing: they are not “mag­ic pills” or “gen­er­al solu­tions” but tar­get­ed tools in a new kind of toolk­it.  So the real ques­tion is how and when and for whom to tar­get those brain train­ing tools to enhance prob­a­bil­i­ty of val­ue. A car may not fly, or be the best way to com­mute to many peo­ple with good pub­lic trans­porta­tion options, but it sure can come handy when used appro­pri­ate­ly.

An even more recent, and quite more insight­ful, review, sup­ports and expands this crit­i­cal point.

Brain train­ing in progress: a review of train­abil­i­ty in healthy seniors (Fron­tiers in Human Neu­ro­science, June 2012):

…Brain train­ing, cur­rent­ly high­ly pop­u­lar among young and old alike, promis­es that users will improve on cer­tain neu­rocog­ni­tive skills, and this has indeed been con­firmed in a num­ber of stud­ies. Based on these results, it seems rea­son­able to expect ben­e­fi­cial effects of brain train­ing in the elder­ly as well. A selec­tive review of the exist­ing lit­er­a­ture sug­gests, how­ev­er, that the results are nei­ther robust nor con­sis­tent, and that trans­fer and sus­tained effects thus far appear lim­it­ed. Based on this review, we argue for a series of ele­ments that hold poten­tial for progress in suc­cess­ful types of brain train­ing: (1) includ­ing flex­i­bil­i­ty and nov­el­ty as fea­tures of the train­ing, (2) focus­ing on a num­ber of promis­ing, yet large­ly unex­plored domains, such as deci­sion-mak­ing and mem­o­ry strat­e­gy train­ing, and (3) tai­lor­ing the train­ing adap­tive­ly to the lev­el and progress of the indi­vid­ual…”

This type of analy­sis is pre­cise­ly what we need more of, and why we devot­ed one full ses­sion of the 2012 Sharp­Brains Vir­tu­al Sum­mit to a dis­cus­sion of “What “con­di­tions” seem to influ­ence trans­fer from train­ing to real life ben­e­fit? As a num­ber of non-inva­sive tech­nolo­gies get increased main­stream use, it is impor­tant to exam­ine which “con­di­tions” seem to medi­ate trans­fer from train­ing to real life ben­e­fit.”

Para­phras­ing hock­ey play­er Wayne Gret­zky, let’s skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.


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