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Another victim of the BBC/Nature “brain training” experiment

Have you read the cover story of the New Scientist this week: Mental muscle: six ways to boost your brain?

The article, which includes good information on brain food, the value of meditation, etc., starts by saying that: “Brain training doesn’t work, but there are lots of other ways to give your grey matter a quick boost.” Further in the article you can read “… brain training software has now been consigned to the shelf of technologies that failed to live up to expectations.”

Such claims are based on the one study widely publicized earlier this year: the BBC “brain training” experiment, published by Owen et al. (2010) in Nature.

What happened to the scientific rigor associated with the New Scientist?

As expressed in one of our previous posts: “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.” (See BBC “Brain Training” Experiment: the Good, the Bad, the Ugly).

Read our two previous posts to get to the heart of the BBC study and what it really means. As Alvaro Fernandez and Dr. Zelinski explore the potential scientific flaws of the study, they both point out that there are very promis­ing pub­lished exam­ples of brain training method­olo­gies that seem to work.

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

Scientific critique of BBC/ Nature Brain Training Experiment

Scientific critique of BBC/ Nature Brain Training Experiment

logo-bbcThere has been quite a bit of comment about the Owen et al study in Nature available online on April 20, 2010. A quick synopsis of the study is that the BBC show Bang Goes the Theory worked with the study authors to provide a test of the hypothesis that commercially available brain training programs transfer to general cognitive abilities. The conclusion was that, despite improvements on the trained tasks, “no evidence was found for transfer effects to untrained tasks, even when those tasks were cognitively closely related.”

The experiment

The study was conducted through the show’s web site. Of 52,617 participants who registered, approximately 20% (11,430) completed full participation in the study, which consisted of two benchmarking assessments 6 weeks apart with variants of neuropsychological tests and at least two training sessions. People were randomly assigned to one of three groups that were asked to train for about 10 min a day three times a week for the 6-week period, though they could train either more or less frequently. One of the two experimental groups was a “brain training” group that completed tasks including simple arithmetic, finding missing pieces, matching symbols to a target, ordering rotating numbers by numerical value, updating, and memory for items. Most of the training sessions were 90 sec each; the rotating numbers tasks was 3 min. These activities are similar to those used in “edutainment” programs that can be played online or with a handheld device. The other experimental group was trained on reasoning tasks that involved identifying relative weights of objects based on a visual “seesaw”, selecting the “odd” item in a concept formation type task, a task involving thinking through the effects of one action on current and future states, and three planning tasks including drawing a continuous line around a grid while ascertaining that the line will not hinder later moves, a version of the Tower of Hanoi task, and a tile sliding game. The control group spent time answering questions about obscure facts and organizing them chronologically based on any available online resource. Results indicated that the two experimental groups performed better than the control group on only one outcome test of grammatical reasoning; there were no differences between either experimental group and the controls on the remaining test. The experimental groups had improved on the trained tasks but not on the transfer tasks.

Scientific concerns

Although some news reports suggest that these findings are definitive, there are a number of concerns, many of which have to do with whether the findings have been overgeneralized to all forms of brain training because only a few tests were used. Second, there have been questions raised about the amount of time allocated to training and the issue of testing in the home environment. The study reported Read the rest of this entry »

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