Maybe the scariest part of growing old is the possibility of cognitive decline—forgetfulness, difficulty thinking clearly, and, in the worst cases, full-on dementia. It’s therefore natural that researchers and entrepreneurs hoped that specialized brain training could make a difference, just as daily walks might keep an aging body fit.
Unfortunately, that hope remains for the most part unfulfilled, according to a study published Tuesday in PLoS Medicine. In healthy older adults, computer-based brain exercises have limited benefits, and then only when supervised by a trainer once to three times a week. And despite what Lumosity and BrainHQ will tell you, doing the training at home had no effect at all, at least in the short term. The meta-analysis and an accompanying commentary add to a growing movement among scientists, who argue that cognitive training may have value, but as yet there is very little evidence to support that claim.
Center-based CCT guided by a specialist has a small but discernibly positive effect on cognitive abilities, much as you might expect a fitness trainer at the gym to have a small positive impact on your physical health.
Amit Lampit, Harry Hallock, and Michael Valenzuela of the University of Sydney's Brain and Mind Research Institute reached their conclusions following a meta-analysis of 51 studies that investigated the effects of computerized cognitive training, or CCT, on nearly 5,000 senior citizens. Limpet, Hallock, and Valenzuela focused specifically on experiments which used at least four hours of CCT and which tested cognitive abilities just before and just after training. Despite those criteria, that left a considerable range of CCT approaches, including both center- and home-based methods as well as measures of information processing speed, working memory, attention, and other skills.
Overall, the most important result was that center-based CCT guided by a specialist has a small but discernibly positive effect on cognitive abilities, much as you might expect a fitness trainer at the gym to have a small positive impact on your physical health. Home training, as the analogy might suggest, had essentially no effect.
Breaking the results down further, the researchers found that CCT had less impact on some skills than others. The largest effects, though still generally small, were on memory for images, working memory—the system that lets you keep track of different pieces of an idea you're pondering, for example—and processing speed. CCT had little to no effect on attention or executive functions, the sorts of things involved in impulse control, planning, and generally avoiding bad spending decisions. And as with the big picture, at-home CCT had no effect on cognitive abilities.
The research is not without limitations, the team notes. The results do not necessarily apply to those already experiencing cognitive impairments, and it remains possible there are more substantial long-term benefits from computer-based brain training—though that mainly highlights the need for more study, the authors write.
In an accompanying perspective article, PLoS Medicine consulting editor Druin Burch writes that CCT's modest effectiveness "is a conclusion of value to academics in the field and to those with interest in selling training programmes. The value to others depends on how well they understand the conclusion's limits." In particular, Burch warns against consumers interpreting the results with anything but caution.