- This Is The Only Type Of Brain Training That Works, According To Science
- The Key Is Neuroplasticity
- Learn A New Skill That Is Outside Of Your Comfort Zone
- Get Active And Eat Right
- Be Wary Of Any Brain Training Program That Makes Claims That Seem Too Good To Be True
- Do brain-training apps really work?
- What exactly are brain training apps?
- How do brain-training apps work?
- Do brain games work?
This Is The Only Type Of Brain Training That Works, According To Science
There are dozens of apps and online courses that claim their “brain training” can make you more mentally agile, but there’s usually little scientific evidence to back up those claims.
While the FDA does approve certain brain training programs aimed to treat specific medical disorders, such as Alzheimer’s, and the FTC goes after false advertising claims–as it did when Lumonsity made claims not supported by science–there’s also no industry body that certifies brain training programs, which is a problem for both the field and consumers, according to Dr. Henry Mahncke, CEO of Posit Science.
“Right now, there’s no group that specifically reviews brain training programs and says the science, these ones have been shown to work in these ways, and these other ones have not been shown to work,” says Mahncke.
“It would be very helpful to people to have this kind of resource–it’s challenging for a lay person to wade through the hundreds of scientific papers and figure out which brain training programs are evidence-based and which aren’t.”
That’s why a group of Australian scientists undertook a systematic review of what studies have been published of commercially available brain training programs in an attempt to give consumers and doctors credible information on which brain training programs are actually scientifically proved to work–if any.
Unfortunately, of the 18 different computerized brain training programs marketed to healthy older adults that were studied, 11 had no peer reviewed published evidence of their efficacy and of the seven that did, only two of those had multiple studies, including at least one study of high quality–BrainHQ and Cognifit.
And of those, just one had multiple high-quality studies: Mahncke’s BrainHQ program.
That study, along with other similar ones, shows that most brain training only make you better at the exercises themselves, and don’t carry those gains over to your real-world concentration, productivity, or mental acuity.
The Key Is Neuroplasticity
But there is good news. Science does show that some brain training programs do work. So which ones? As the Australian study showed, Mahncke’s BrainHQ and competitor Cognifit actually do have a real benefit.
Because both are brain training that is focused on improving processing speed–the speed and accuracy with which the brain processes information.
Mahncke says this type of training focuses on the visual system: “You see an image in the center of your vision–for example, either a car or a truck–and at the same time, you see another image way off in your peripheral vision. The images are only on the screen for a brief period of time–well under a second.
You then have to say whether you saw the car or the truck in the center of your vision, and then you have to show where you saw the image in your peripheral vision. This challenges the speed and the accuracy of your visual system. And as you get faster and more accurate, the speed increases and the peripheral vision task gets more demanding–pushing your brain further.”
As your visual system is continually challenged by these specific tests, your brain will adapt through a process known as neuroplasticity. “At its core purpose, the brain wants to resolve things.
It is constantly moving from the particular to the big picture and back again,” Mahncke says.
As the brain works to put the big picture together it goes through neuroplastic changes in order to do so (“neuro” = brain, and “plastic” = the ability to undergo structural changes).
These plasticity-based changes actually form new neuropathways in your brain–literally changing its shape. The new neuropathways can then be called upon to help you process stimuli beyond just the specific methods used in the brain training exercises.
This is why brain training that results in neuroplastic changes works much better than simple memory “brain training” games, which may help you remember where, for example, the red card is hidden, but won’t help you remember the details from that last meeting with your client.
“We know that the brain is more plastic when brain chemicals are activated, so the design of these exercises also incorporates attentional demands, novelty, and rewards to activate those chemicals and drive the chemical and physical change that produce the better functional results,” says Mahncke. “Those brain chemicals also impact mood and learning rates. If you think about it, what you do, pretty much every waking moment, should be positively affected by a faster and more accurate brain.”
The result, as the science has shown, says Mahncke, is that people who undertake plasticity-based brain training programs “notice feeling sharper, quicker, and more able to notice the important details of everyday life– what someone says in a noisy restaurant, or what’s happening at the edge of your peripheral vision, or what all seven digits of that phone number were.”
But what if you don’t feel undertaking scientifically proven brain training programs BrainHQ and Cognifit? Mahncke says that you can prime your brain for and spur it into plastic changes by challenging yourself in everyday life. Here are his four tips how to do that:
Learn A New Skill That Is Outside Of Your Comfort Zone
“Just doing the same old stimulating thing over and over again doesn’t challenge the brain to rewire itself,” Mahncke says.
“If you’ve been doing crossword puzzles for 10 years, pick something new–and really different–and work at it 2-3 hours per week, even though it will be hard.
My mom started harpsichord lessons–and practiced a lot! It was great for her brain: the speed and accuracy of listening and finger movements are a good form of brain exercise–and everyone in my family enjoyed having music in the house!”
Don’t want to switch up your hobbies or learn a new musical instrument? No problem, just get out there and travel. “Travel is a great way to challenge your brain to learn and change–everything from buying a loaf of bread to finding your way home is new and different.
But if you can’t afford to jet to Italy as a form of brain training, then take new paths in your own neighborhood,” Mahncke says. “Find a new way to the grocery store, or the long way to your favorite park. Focus on noticing new landmarks, different sounds (and smells?) and putting together and more detailed mental map of your own neighborhood.
As soon as a route gets familiar, find a new one–every few days. This engages your brain’s hippocampus–the seat of learning and memory.”
Get Active And Eat Right
Finally, don’t forget your body. “The National Academies of Science, Engineering & Medicine recently reviewed the data and suggested three things as supported by scientific evidence–brain training (from ACTIVE specifically–not just brain games), physical exercise, and maintaining healthy blood pressure in middle age,” says Mahncke.
In other words, it’s going to be harder to maintain a sharp brain if your body is diverting its energy to fighting other elements in your body, high blood pressure.
So avoid consuming too much salt and get out there for a walk or a run–and if you want to work in exercise and brain training in one go, adjust your runs every few days to let your brain discover new paths and routes around your home.
Be Wary Of Any Brain Training Program That Makes Claims That Seem Too Good To Be True
“We are at the beginning of a paradigm shift in how we think about brain health. As with any major paradigm shift in science, things may seem confusing for a while.
Headlines will scream about some major breakthroughs in cognitive performance from plasticity-based brain training. This will seem to be followed within the month by headlines screaming about some other study seemingly showing the opposite.
In fact, what you are experiencing is scientists rather messily trying to separate the wheat from the chaff,” says Mahncke.
“Some brain training has been repeatedly shown to work. If you sort through it, you’ll find that is a plasticity-based brain, training developed by knowledgeable and reputable experts.
Other brain games have been rushed to market to make a buck, and will fail in serious trials. It’s important to realize that not all brain training is the same.
Look for products designed by real experts and subjected to peer-reviewed studies, and be wary of those that spend more money on advertising than on research.”
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Do brain-training apps really work?
The claims sound too good to be true: Spend just 15 minutes a day with a brain-training app Lumosity and you could see a marked improvement in your memory, processing speed, and arithmetic reasoning—all by playing a game that tasks you with something as simple as feeding a school of fish or helping ants avoid a collision.
In fact, according to the Mayo Clinic, results are often only mild to moderate—with no real evidence they work to prevent cognitive decline, dementia. There is some debate over whether these apps improve cognition, or simply train people to be better at the app itself. There is little proof that the apps help improve functioning in other life tasks.
Are the reports of their efficacy science or so much snake oil? The answer, it appears, is probably somewhere in between.
What exactly are brain training apps?
If you search brain training, you will find a lot of apps that claim to build cognitive skills—to help you think faster, focus better, and even claim to fight conditions dementia or ADHD—all by playing games on your phone. Apps Peak, Elevate, and CogniFit are computerized cognitive training programs, which utilize gameplay to essentially “exercise” your brain the way a brisk walk or run would exercise your body.
The difference being that while there is a vast body of research indicating the benefits of breaking a sweat, research is ongoing about the efficacy of brain-boosting apps.
“Five years ago there was really no evidence that these sorts of activities could have a significant improvement on things we can measure, memory recall,” says Tamily Weissman, Ph.D.
, a neuroscientist and associate professor of biology at Lewis & Clark College.
“More trustworthy studies have been done in recent years, which really do start to point to some definite measurable positive effects of using these sorts of brain-boosting activities.”
Tara Swart, Ph.D., MD, a neuroscientist and psychiatrist, says that the research isn’t definitive: “There is equivocal evidence that brain-boosting apps such as Lumosity produce significant brain changes associated with learning or plasticity,” she says.
“Longitudinal studies would show whether these correlate to real-world changes in cognitive ability or executive functions.
” Meaning, while Lumosity might train you to excel at the games in the app, it’s unproven if those benefits translate to improved focus at school or at work.
“There has been much controversy over the last few years regarding whether or not apps that claim to improve cognition actually do what they say,” agrees Kasey Nichols, NMD, medical contributor from RAVEReviews.org.
“Proponents on both sides point to studies that can be used to support cognitive improvements apps and those that show that there is little cognitive improvement over time.
The reality is that research involving apps that claim to improve cognitive abilities is still in its infancy.”
“When viewing the research as it stands today,” Dr. Nichols continues, “you’d ly come to the conclusion that apps that claim to improve cognitive abilities are useful in training specific cognitive tasks in the apps being used.
Whether or not these cognitive improvements translate to other cognitive tasks that are useful in everyday life is yet to be uncovered.
Financial interests often complicate the studies that have been conducted thus far along with a lack of long term studies.”
And that is an important note: While studies may support the short-term benefits of brain-training apps, there are no studies that track the 20-, 30-, or 40-year effects.
RELATED: Alzheimer’s treatment and medications
How do brain-training apps work?
Brain training apps are considered an active behavior, as opposed to a passive behavior, such as watching TV. Active behaviors help strengthen the brain’s neural circuits, according to Weissman.
“Forcing yourself to think through something more actively keeps the neural circuits in your brain more active, and there’s definitely evidence from all different types of studies that the more a neural circuit is activated the easier it is to activate it later,” she says. “Neural circuits are these connections of neurons that are all over the brain that allow us to control behavior. We know that when one of those is activated repeatedly over time that it can lead to the strengthening of that connection.”
But, says Weissman, it’s a misconception that strengthening these connections (also known as synapses) is always good and weakening them is always bad.
Of course, there are other ways to strengthen these synapses if smartphone games aren’t your thing, but there are a few parameters to keep in mind, says Dr. Swart.
“Brain training needs to be sufficiently attention-intense to actually change the brain,” explains Dr. Swart, offering examples such as learning a new language or a musical instrument. “An app such as Duolingo may be as or more beneficial.”
Do brain games work?
The bottom line: The jury is still out on the evidence behind their efficacy. According to some experts, brain-training apps could help boost certain cognitive functions.
But, other experts say the apps have no benefit outside of entertainment. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) ruled that brain-training apps cannot make false claims that they help conditions ADHD and Alzheimer’s disease.
More studies will need to be done to prove their long-term benefits.
“There should be a healthy skepticism when approaching brain training applications, but this shouldn’t necessarily prevent you from giving these programs a try.
It’s too early to know for sure if these applications will have applicable real-world improvements in cognition,” explains Dr. Nichols.
“For some consciously focusing on improving particular cognitive performance measures can end up noticeably enhancing cognition.”
In other words, brain-training apps could work—but they also could do nothing. If you don’t mind spending money on a subscription, there probably isn’t much downside to giving them a try.
There’s an app for everything these days, including mental health management and medication reminders. SingleCare also has an app for saving money on prescription drugs, which is free for iOS and Android users.