Everybody wants a better brain. Something faster, more focused, and more juiced with good ideas would be nice for everyone. As my colleague Sarah Kessler pointed out last month, brain training companies like Lumosity aim to help you achieve that better brain. But underneath the promises of enhanced cognition, another thought occupies many people’s minds: Could keeping “mentally fit” today ward off the devastation of dementia in later years?
Last month, a group of 69 brain researchers from various institutions got together to pen an admonishing open letter on brain training from the Stanford Center on Longevity and the Berlin Max Planck Institute for Human Development. They warned against one-off experiments from researchers with financial interests in brain training products, and noted that much more research would be needed to make some of the conclusions that brain training companies were selling.
“To date, there is little evidence that playing brain games improves underlying broad cognitive abilities, or that it enables one to better navigate a complex realm of everyday life,” the researchers wrote. “No studies have demonstrated that playing brain games cures or prevents Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.”
This past week, a group of researchers from the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Research Institute issued something of a follow-up response. Publishing a large review of 52 brain training studies in Plos Medicine, Amit Lampit, Harry Hallock, and Michael Valenzuela found that there wasn’t much to support the idea that playing brain training games alone on your computer could sharpen your noggin. But it wasn’t all bad news. The researchers did discover, however, that brain training in groups–like at a “brain gym” with a trained supervisor–showed encouraging results.
“I agree that there is disconnect between [brain game] marketing and the science,” explains study co-author Valenzuela. “On the other hand, there’s been 32 clinical trials of group-based brain training and it is effective. So some parts of that consensus statement seem to be ignoring a large field of research that establishes efficacy.”
But what’s the difference between playing brain games in a group and playing them on your phone on the way to work? Valenzuela says that people who play brain games alone could just be gravitating toward the type of exercises they’re already good at. On the other side, the social environment of a brain gym can be motivational, and the same goes for a trained supervisor.
His explanation doesn’t sound too different from what the merits of a gym membership would be versus buying a Bowflex machine spotted on late night TV. And, similar to rigorous physical training, the Sydney researchers’ analysis also showed that brain training every day proved ineffective. Training more than three times a week showed worse results.
At the same time, Valenzuela warns that neither of these methods has proved sufficient to keep dementia at bay.
“I think it’s evident that the brain training industry is under some pressure now because of that statement and because of general media spotlight,” Valenzuela adds. “I think if they want to keep scientists on their side, they’re going to have to respond accordingly and put in more time, effort, and investment in programs that have a scientific basis.”