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BBC “Brain Training” Experiment: the Good, the Bad, the Ugly

You may already have read the hun­dreds of media arti­cles today titled “brain train­ing does­n’t work” and sim­i­lar, based on the BBC “Brain Test Britain” exper­i­ment.

Once more, claims seem to go beyond the sci­ence back­ing them up … except that in this case it is the researchers, not the devel­op­ers, who are respon­si­ble.

Let’s recap what we learned today.

The Good Sci­ence

The study showed that putting togeth­er a250px-ClintEastwood vari­ety of brain games in one web­site and ask­ing peo­ple who hap­pen to show up to play around for a grand total of 3–4 hours over 6 weeks (10 min­utes 3 times a week for 6 weeks) did­n’t result in mean­ing­ful improve­ments in cog­ni­tive func­tion­ing. This is use­ful infor­ma­tion for con­sumers to know, because in fact there are web­sites and com­pa­nies mak­ing claims based on sim­i­lar approach­es with­out sup­port­ing evi­dence. And this is pre­cise­ly the rea­son Sharp­Brains exists, to help both con­sumers (through our book) and orga­ni­za­tions (through our report) to make informed deci­sions. The paper only includ­ed peo­ple under 60, which is sur­pris­ing, but, still, this is use­ful infor­ma­tion to know.

A TIME arti­cle sum­ma­rizes the lack of trans­fer well:

But the improve­ment had noth­ing to do with the inter­im brain-train­ing, says study co-author Jes­si­ca Grahn of the Cog­ni­tion and Brain Sci­ences Unit in Cam­bridge. Grahn says the results con­firm what she and oth­er neu­ro­sci­en­tists have long sus­pect­ed: peo­ple who prac­tice a cer­tain men­tal task — for instance, remem­ber­ing a series of num­bers in sequence, a pop­u­lar brain-teas­er used by many video games — improve dra­mat­i­cal­ly on that task, but the improve­ment does not car­ry over to cog­ni­tive func­tion in gen­er­al.”

The Bad Sci­ence

The study, which was not a gold stan­dard clin­i­cal tri­al, angeleyescleef1.thumbnailcon­tained obvi­ous flaws both in method­ol­o­gy and in inter­pre­ta­tion, as some neu­ro­sci­en­tists have start­ed to point out. Back to the TIME arti­cle:

Kling­berg (note: Torkel Kling­berg is a cog­ni­tive neu­ro­sci­en­tist who has pub­lished mul­ti­ple sci­en­tif­ic stud­ies on the ben­e­fits of brain train­ing, and found­ed a com­pa­ny on the basis of that pub­lished work)…criticizes the design of the study and points to two fac­tors that may have skewed the results.

On aver­age the study vol­un­teers com­plet­ed 24 train­ing ses­sions, each about 10 min­utes long — for a total of three hours spent on dif­fer­ent tasks over six weeks. “The amount of train­ing was low,” says Kling­berg. “Ours and oth­ers’ research sug­gests that 8 to 12 hours of train­ing on one spe­cif­ic test is need­ed to get a [gen­er­al improve­ment in cog­ni­tion].”

Sec­ond, Read the rest of this entry »

About SharpBrains

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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