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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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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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