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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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