Healthy Aging

Does Online Brain Training Work?

Senior man using laptop, close-up


“What we want to see is changes in human performance. It’s wonderful to see changes in the brain, but you have to see changes that matter.”

Can online brain training keep your mind sharp, help you think faster and forestall dementia? That’s a billion-dollar question. There’s a huge and profitable industry betting on it—in fact, AARP estimates that the digital brain training market will grow to $6 billion in the next three years.

Naturally, scientists are trying to find the answer. And the fast answer is, we don’t know yet.

In a report recently released by AARP, Engage Your Brain, experts announced that, while there’s some scientific evidence that certain commercial programs do boost focus, improve memory and possibly keep dementias at bay, other studies show that while we may become better at playing the games we’re training with, there doesn’t appear to be any lasting benefit to our learning, memory or reasoning.

However, AARP’s report also says that “evidence-based cognitive training” that has been made into a mind-challenging game can be a good, cognitively stimulating activity. The problem, the report says, is that not all of the commercially available games have sufficient evidence to support their claims.

One clinical trial is the ACTIVE (Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly) study. Researchers at several universities found that seniors who did certain computerized cognitive training exercises, also known as CCT, improved their speed of processing by 63 percent. And an earlier, large clinical trial did show that CCT could improve memory.

But so far neither AARP, nor any neuroscience group, has devised a buyer’s guide to online brain training programs.

What neuroscientists do know is that the neurons in the adult brain change throughout life as a person masters various tasks.

That concept owes much to the research of Michael Merzenich, PhD, the “father of plasticity.” Merzenich, along with Henry Mahncke, PhD and others founded Posit Science in 2004 and launched the company’s first commercial brain-training program in 2006. (It’s been available as Brain HQ since 2012.) The online exercises are designed to stimulate neuron connections in the brain. For example, the Target Tracker exercise is one of five that addresses attention, and playing Hawk Eye is said to improve brain speed. Brain HQ is being used in independent and National Institutes of Health sponsored research throughout the country.

We asked Dr. Mahncke, a neuroscientist and the CEO of Posit Science, about the brain’s ability to change and improve in response to computer games and real-life stimulation, like crossword puzzles, tai chi or even quilting. 

What exactly is brain plasticity?

Plasticity is the ability of the brain to change its structure, chemistry and function in response to what we ask the brain to do. The brain is composed of millions of very specialized cells that connect to each other. They talk to each other. And every one of these neurons is connected to a thousand other neurons. What matters about the brain is those connections. Anything you learn to do—play the violin, for instance—makes those connections stronger.

Dr. Merzenich’s viewpoint was that if we can figure out how to build training exercises based on the principle of brain plasticity, we should be able to rewire the brain in a helpful way.

Does the brain’s ability to make new connections change with age?

We know that plasticity occurs in older adult brains and even in the brains of people who have had head injuries. Sure, older adults have to work a bit harder to drive change, but the ability is there.

What do you think happens in the brain as a person does brain training exercises?

Brain training works on the connections between neurons. The connections get stronger and new connections are created. Old connections are weakened and destroyed. Those changes in connection change how a person’s mental abilities, like memory, work. 

Can brain training exercises actually create new neurons?

I speculate that we’re going to understand that learning, and new experience in particular, contribute to the birth of new neurons. As you learn things, your brain realizes that it needs to change to learn those new things. It creates new neurons to help change the neural architecture.

It’s an evolving field, which is what makes it so much fun.

A colleague just finished a brain training study involving the University of Iowa. The study was able to show that not only did people’s cognitive function improve, but it looks like neurons in certain regions of the brain became more connected. The training programs were changing the wiring in those regions.

Some neuroimaging tests have shown that brain training increased connectivity in the hippocampus, an area involved in memory formation among other things. Are brain imaging techniques useful in showing exactly how computerized cognitive training  works—or doesn’t?  

I think neuroimaging is fantastic. The idea that we have this technology that lets us look inside a person’s skull and directly measure what is changing, what’s active and what’s inactive is fantastic.

Brain training studies that involve neuroimaging are very valuable, because we can understand how and why those changes are occurring. That being said, in the end what we want to see is changes in human performance. It’s wonderful to see changes in the brain, but you have to see changes that matter.

There are quite a few brain training programs on the market now. Are they all the same?

No, they’re not the same. Some help with certain cognitive skills, and some help with other cognitive skills. Some show efficacy and some don’t. I believe it’s on the developers of each program to show that their’s works. A couple of companies have had to pay huge fines for false advertising. [Editor’s note: Luminosity was one of them].

The research is mixed on whether CTT slows cognitive decline. Do you think it does?

One of the first things I did at Posit Science was set up clinical trials. We ran the first large-scale clinical trials of brain training with independent academic experts at centers like the Mayo Clinic. We directly demonstrated that people doing the exercises improved their memory by about 10 years. People who were 65 performed like people who were 55.

Does the improvement you and other researchers have seen transfer to other tasks—not just the skills involved in playing the games—and lead to improvement in function?

The ACTIVE study found that the study subjects improved in their ability to do daily activities, such as taking medications and handling money. They were also more confident drivers, and the number of accidents in which they were at fault dropped by 48 percent.

Recently a study was published that concluded CTT had no effect on decision making. What do you think about those results?

I know that study extremely well. The brain training program they used was not effective. And that study measured one particular thing. It’s not appropriate to measure one thing and say that since it didn’t change, that means brain training has no effect.

Do the benefits of CTT stop if you stop doing the training exercises?

Brain training is driving long-lasting changes in the brain. If you stop, the benefits aren’t going to go away immediately. They’re going to take a while to wear off. So I tell people it’s fine to take a break from doing them, but come back and spend some time practicing them again periodically.

Of course, the benefits a person gains from doing brain training are reinforced by other activities that stimulate the brain, whether it’s tai chi, learning a new language or acquiring a new skill.

What about other activities like doing crossword puzzles? Researchers at the University of Exeter found that people who did crossword puzzles regularly had brains that were ten years younger than their chronologic age.

It was a strong result. It’s been shown in a variety of studies before, but the Exeter study showed it in a large population. But the study may have been over-interpreted. Crossword puzzles might improve your cognitive function, but it’s equally likely that having good cognitive function encourages you to do crossword puzzles.

A similar study at the University of Virginia looked at age differences. At every age, people who did crossword puzzles had better cognitive function than those who didn’t. But when researchers compared the two groups, they saw that regardless of whether people did crossword puzzles or not, the cognitive function of those in their 40s was still less than that of people in their 20s or 30s. Doing crossword puzzles did not protect against cognitive decline.

What do you think? Are you skeptical—or are you doing online brain training, tai chi or some other form of cognitive exercise? 


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