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The truth about brain-training games

The efficacy of brain-training games has been a matter of intense controversy ever since their much-publicized launch. Experts argue that cognitive functions are improved in some players while remaining unchanged in others. A recent British study explains it all.

Brain-training games: Real?
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The cognitive tests of brain-training games aren’t necessarily innovating. Most of these tests have been performed by neurologists since the mid-19th century, with the purpose of diagnosing and determining the extent of brain lesions. The whole controversy is not about the tests in themselves, but more about their alleged benefits on a healthy patient’s overall cognitive functioning. In other words, are those benefits transferable to other untrained tasks?

Train your brain

Like any other organ in the human body, the brain needs to be stimulated to stay fit. This stimulation is especially important past the age of 30, when the brain starts losing 100,000 neuron connections a day. Neuron stimulation is therefore instrumental in maintaining and preserving intellectual capacities.

Over the last couple of years, brain-training programs have been depicted as a revolutionary tool for rejuvenating the brain. This is best exemplified by Japanese neurologist Dr Kawashima’s tests, more particularly the eponymous 2005 brain-training game. After many years of neuroscience research, Dr Kawashima contends that his tests stimulate all parts of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex (PFC), a brain region implicated in such cognitive functions as creativity and memory.

Scientific research does not consistently show improvement

Brain-training games became tremendously successful immediately after they came on the market. It’s fair to say, however, that this commercial success is the only thing about brain-training programs which can’t be disputed by critics. The effectiveness of these games in improving cognitive function has been questioned on multiple occasions by cognitive psychology experts.

A recent British study1 published in the April, 2010 issue of the magazine Nature suggests that the overall cognitive functions of the 11,430 volunteers ages 18 to 60 had failed to improve at the end of the 6 weeks’ brain training2.  

According to the same study, all trained cognitive functions had improved, while no progress was seen in other untrained functions.

Training or playing?

The conclusions of the British team highlight what everyone has always suspected but never quite said, namely that brain-training games are, well, just games. That being said, the scientists insist that brain-training programs are not entirely ineffective2. They do indeed stimulate certain areas of the brain, in much the same way as paper games, crosswords, sudoku and even reading.  

It should be reminded that brain-training programs are targeted for people over 60 and that research undermining claims of efficacy is based on younger volunteers. The cognitive functions of working people is hardly comparable with those of retirees over 60. This is why brain training in young, healthy patients delivers rather disappointing results.

The controversy surrounding the effectiveness of brain-training games, while it is continuing, has at least had the advantage of stressing the importance of stimulating the brain to keep it fit.



1 - "Putting brain training to the test", Owen A et coll., Nature 465, 775-778 (June 10 2010), online summary

2 - "No gain from brain training", articule discussing the Nature study, April 20, 2010, available online

Posted 28.05.2012


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