High School Mind, Brain, and Behavior TSS

How Effective Are Brain-Training Apps?

Almost sounding too good to be true, many brain-training apps claim to improve memory. Read on to learn more.

Many brain-training apps- like Lumosity- claim to improve your memory and enhance your cognitive skills, all with a few minutes of your time each day playing mini-games! It almost sounds too good to be true. In some ways, it is, but in other ways, it isn’t. Whatever your stance be on brain-training apps, it’s important to know the actual cognitive benefits—or lack thereof—of these kinds of apps.

Most researchers and studies come to the conclusion that brain-training apps will not make you “smarter” in a sense—rather, they only make you better at the brain exercises in the apps themselves [3]. For instance, a study published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest found “little evidence that training enhances performance on distantly related tasks or that training improves everyday cognitive performance” [1].

In another study, the effectiveness of brain-training apps was observed through 3 groups: 1) 64 participants who played Lumosity games for 30 minutes a day for 10 weeks, 2) 64 participants who played web-based video games, and 3) a no contact control group. Before and after the study period, all of the participants received brain scans and completed a cognitive exam. At the end of the study, all three groups showed some improvement on cognitive measures when assessed, leading University of Pennsylvania psychiatry professor Dr. Caryn Lerman to conclude that there was “no evidence that personal brain training benefited the participants in terms of improving cognitive performance, working memory, on attention, cognitive flexibility, or inhibitory control” [2].

However, there is some good news. Some brain-training programs are actually effective. According to an Australian study, Mahncke’s Brain HQ and Cognifit, yields real benefits because the programs are based on brain training focused on improving processing speed– he speed and accuracy with which the brain processes information [3]. Mahncke says this particular type of brain training focuses on the visual system. And as these exercises challenge your visual systems, your brain will ultimately adapt through a process known as “neuroplasticity.” Essentially, the brain is constantly “changing” itself to adapt to certain processes. During neuroplasticity, new neuropathways are formed in your brain, which quite literally changes its shape. These neuropathways can then be utilized to help you process stimuli beyond the specific methods used in brain-training exercises [3].

Furthermore, another study from McGill University shows how particular brain-training exercises can directly increase production of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter critical to memory and learning [4]. During the study, five healthy older adults completed around 12 hours of brain training across a period of 6 weeks using a proprietary program called BrainHQ. PET scans that tracked acetylcholine levels before and after the experiment produced fascinating results: an increase in acetylcholine was identified in four areas of the brain: the right inferior frontal gyrus, left caudate nucleus, bilateral medial prefrontal cortex, and left lingual gyrus/Cuneus [4]. While this study included an admittedly small sample set, it does yield some interesting evidence of the potential neurological benefits of brain-training exercises.

In the end, there is certainly no harm in wanting to play brain-training games. However, it is important for people to be informed of brain-training programs’ actual cognitive and neurological effects. There is certainly more research that needs to be done on the effectiveness of brain-training apps, but as we look towards the future, we can hope for brain-training programs that have the potential to aid Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, among many others.

  1. Condliffe, Jamie. “Brain-Training Apps Won’t Make You Smarter…” MIT Technology Review, MIT Technology Review, 4 Oct. 2016, http://www.technologyreview.com/s/602540/brain-training-apps-wont-make-you-smarter/.
  2. Entis, Laura. “Brain Games Don’t Work.” Fortune, Fortune, 10 July 2017, fortune.com/2017/07/10/brain-games-research-lumosity/.
  3. Grothaus, Michael. “This Is The Only Type Of Brain Training That Works, According To Science.” Fast Company, Fast Company, 29 Nov. 2017, http://www.fastcompany.com/40451692/this-is-the-only-type-of-brain-training-that-works-according-to-science.
  4. Haridy, Rich. “Brain Training App Can Improve Levels of Critical Cognition-Improving Neurochemical.” New Atlas – New Technology & Science News, New Atlas, 30 July 2018, newatlas.com/brain-training-exercise-improves-cognition-alzheimers/55667/.

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