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Brain training games promise to improve your memory, prevent cognitive losses and decrease your chances of showing symptoms of dementia – are their promises too good to be true?

Video games have become so much more than a way to pass time – they’re used as simulations for teaching and training, tests of attention and skill, and even as diagnostic tools.

Recently, many online cognitive training platforms such as Lumosity Lumosity: A Web App To Help You Improve Your Mental Skills Lumosity: A Web App To Help You Improve Your Mental Skills Read More have claimed that their “brain training” video games can help to slow symptoms of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, which currently have no cure.  Unfortunately, the reality is a little more complicated than Lumosity’s advertisements would suggest.

Neuroscience 101

Brain training games base their promises on two theories – the theory of neuroplasticity, and the theory of cognitive reserve.

Neuroplasticity is the process of the brain modifying its pathways as it learns new things. Originally, scientists thought that this process only occurred in childhood, but a breakthrough study by Draganski et al. in 2004 demonstrated that adults learning a new task (in this case, juggling) developed new, longterm physical changes in their brain’s composition.

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This breakthrough was huge for neuroscience, because it showed that adults can modify the structure of their brain even after it has matured.

Further studies have shown that these structural changes can even occur in adults diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment — a high risk factor for the development of dementia.

The theory of cognitive reserve goes hand-in-hand with neuroplasticity. This theory proposes that life experiences, cognitive activities, and unique skill sets can allow your brain to compensate for the structural changes that come with aging and dementia by building new pathways.

Essentially, cognitive reserve is the “use it or lose it” theory – the more you use your brain, the more pathways it builds through neuroplasticity, and the longer it will take for you to show symptoms of cognitive decline or dementia.

What do Brain Training Games Look Like?

Brain training games 5 Sites To Boost Your Brain Fitness With Fun Games & Puzzles 5 Sites To Boost Your Brain Fitness With Fun Games & Puzzles Read More come in all shapes and sizes.

While Lumosity is one of the best known companies in its industry, there are innumerable apps, video games, and websites available that are dedicated to brain training.

There is some variation between companies, but brain training games feature simple controls and design that allow the player to focus on a single cognitive skill such as memory, attention, processing speed, or problem solving. The games increase in difficulty over time.

The games are offered as “training programs” that are intended to be completed daily, and these programs may be individualized to some degree.

Competition in brain training games is usually limited to competition against yourself — trying to improve your score in individual games, or an overall “brain health” score calculated at ongoing intervals which may offer comparisons to others that are of your age and education level.

While the games are simple and are targeted for non-gaming adults 5 Games to Play with Your Non-Gaming Parents 5 Games to Play with Your Non-Gaming Parents So you want to introduce your parents to video games? Here are a few places to start! Read More , they can be incredibly frustrating — there is no doubt that they require focus and concentration to complete them quickly and accurately, and it can be addicting to watch your score improve while unlocking new levels.

So What is the Problem?

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To summarize, thanks to neuroscience, we know two things:

  1. The brain can change even in adulthood when we learn new skills, and
  2. The more actively we use our brain, the more we decrease our individual chances of developing symptoms of dementia

And, thanks to the research that has gone into the development of brain training games we know that they:

  1. Focus on building new skills, and
  2. Place a priority on challenging your brain with new and targeted tasks.

Looking at these facts, it seems hard to believe that brain training games don’t accomplish everything that they say they can – but unbiased research shows that there are some areas where they definitely don’t measure up.

In fact, the Stanford Centre of Longevity released a statement written by cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists that referred to the claims made by brain training websites as “exaggerated and misleading” — a statement that definitely should not be taken lightly.

“[…] exaggerated and misleading claims exploit the anxiety of adults facing old age for commercial purposes. Perhaps the most pernicious claim, devoid of any scientifically credible evidence, is that brain games prevent or reverse Alzheimer’s disease.”

Where do Brain Training Games Fall Short?

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Lumosity boasts that it has 70 million members, many of whom are paying a monthly subscription fee to access their full library of brain training games – a practice shared by most other brain training services.

For this reason, it’s imperative that users understand what they are (and aren’t) getting from the time and money they spend on brain training.

The best way to explain brain training games like Lumosity is that they are essentially an answer key for cognitive tests.

You will definitely improve in your ability to play the brain training games (as you would with any other video game), and your test scores will likely improve (because the brain training games are correlated to questions commonly used in cognitive tests).

However, many unbiased studies have shown that it is unlikely that the time you spend playing brain training games will actually enable you to use your brain in the ways that you want to use it in your daily life.

Essentially, brain training games only train your brain to play the games — they do not train your brain for the problems that it will encounter in real life, and studies agree that it is unlikely that they actually contribute towards your cognitive reserve.

So… Is Lumosity Lying?

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Over the past couple of years, Lumosity has toned down a lot of the language that they use concerning their brain training games. They may not be making explicitly false promises, but their insinuations are still pretty misleading.

While their homepage points to scientific studies and PhD’s, it’s important to remember that many of these studies and individuals are funded by Lumosity — greatly increasing the likelihood that a positive end result will be reported.

When all of the literature is examined, there just isn’t the support that Lumosity claims there is. Lumosity’s games are great in theory, but they have failed to demonstrate any incredible positive effects when examined by outside sources.

The Future of Brain Training

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The take-away from this article shouldn’t be that video games will never be able to help prevent age-related cognitive decline and memory loss, nor should it be that time spent on Lumosity or similar websites is time wasted.

As we mentioned above, the logic for brain training games is THERE, and there is research to support the general idea of computerized brain training games. However, in its current state we just aren’t quite able to achieve the results that we want.

In fact, a 2014 study by Shute, Ventura and Ke showed that participants who played Portal 2 (a video game that makes use of strategy and puzzles but isn’t focused on cognitive training) was far more effective than Lumosity in improving students’ performance on measures of problem solving, spatial skills, and persistence.

The real truth of the matter is that this is one of the research areas that could change the world Cool Research Projects That Could Change the Future Cool Research Projects That Could Change the Future Will mega-corporations like Google, Microsoft, IBM, and Intel go on to give future generations the world we can only imagine now? These exciting research projects say that it is a promise they will keep. Read More  – but there is so much more research and innovation required in this area before that can happen.

While Lumosity may not be providing its users with protective gains in cognitive reserve, it is collecting tons of data about how users interact with brain training game and their efficacy (to a point). This data will be invaluable to game designers and neuroscientists moving forwards.

I fully believe that in the future there will be incredible, immersive video games that do allow users to learn new skills, improve their problem solving, and slow cognitive decline – but the research isn’t there to support the brain training platforms that are available right now.

What Should I Do Now to Keep My Brain Healthy?

Go for a walk. Learn a new language. Eat a balanced diet. Meet new people. Take up a new hobby. All of these pastimes are great, scientifically supported, ways to keep your brain active 5 Things You Can Do In 5 Minutes To Exercise Your Brain 5 Things You Can Do In 5 Minutes To Exercise Your Brain Keeping your brain in top shape requires that you challenge it on a regular basis. Surprisingly, you can do a lot in five minutes. Here are five things you can do for your mental fitness. Read More , reduce risk factors of developing dementia, and create cognitive reserve.

If you enjoy the games on Lumosity and the challenges that they offer there is no reason to stop playing the games — it’s just important that you don’t think playing twenty minutes of basic video games five times a week is enough targeted cognitive intervention to truly decrease your risk of developing symptoms of dementia or to improve your overall cognitive abilities outside of your skills in-game.

Improving brain health has been a hot topic in the news lately, so we ask you — Do you have a Lumosity membership? What do you think the future holds for interactions between neuroscience and video games? 

Image Credit: Human Brain Sagittal View via. Shutterstock

  1. Julie Richards
    July 30, 2015 at 9:03 am

    I have played lumosity games for many years now and like any games repeatedly played will increase your score, whether its online or whether its on a game console.

    In my experience the reality that it will help with every day tasks is just not that simple. Yes, my score may have improved on the memory games but i still forget where i put things and names of people etc.

    The theory use it or lose it, is not technically true as i have seen some very intelligent people's lives destroyed because of alzheimer's and dementia.

    I will still continue to play the games because I enjoy playing them but to be charged over a ten pounds a month is something I will no longer be doing as I have been questioning the out come of my results for a while and reading this article as answered the questions that I already knew the answers to but needed confirmation. Thank you for this thought provoking article

    Julie

    • Briallyn Smith
      July 30, 2015 at 11:00 am

      Hi Julie,
      Thanks so much for sharing! I do think it's probably wise to switch to a free membership, but if you do enjoy the games enough to pay the ten pounds then that could be worth it too! :)

      I always wondered about that facial recognition diner game - because all the characters always wore the same clothes, I think I can honestly say that I didn't get better at recognizing faces I just knew them by the clothes/accessories they wore!

      I do want to clarify what I meant by "use it or lose it", because I definitely didn't mean to imply that by using your brain more you would be able to prevent alzheimer's or dementia completely!

      Instead, the current theory is that if you are going to develop dementia or alzheimer's there is nothing we can do to *stop* that from happening. However, the more you have used your brain throughout your life the longer you will be able to delay your symptoms from having an adverse influence on your life

      (e.g. Bob is going to develop the beginnings of alzheimer's at 65, but because he has used his brain in diverse ways over his lifetime, he will be able to compensate for the initial structural damage for ten years, so no symptoms will appear until he is 75. Larry, however, has not taken care of his brain and so when structural damage begins at 65, he will begin showing symptoms of cognitive decline almost immediately) - hopefully that makes sense!

      Thank you so much for your thoughts - I loved hearing about your experience, and I hope that the free membership is a good compromise for you between the games you enjoy and the steep price tag of a full membership! :)

  2. davidsilverlight
    July 30, 2015 at 1:59 am

    I recently stopped using Lumosity after having used it daily for the past 2+ years. I can't say for sure whether it helped me, but I enjoyed it and it made for a good start to my day by engaging my brain. I never scientifically measured outside of using Lumosity's LPI computed after each daily training session.

    While the exercises are fun, every time I have had to interact with the company about a question, or to report an issue, the interaction always left me a bit disappointed and surprised that this company is the same one that produces tools to trains your brain. Underwhelming to say the least. After a while, my conclusion was that their measurement system (LPI) was not anything that even they took seriously. So, after 2 years of daily use, I kinda went sour on Lumosity and stopped using it. I did not stop brain training, just went with a different tool.

    I even have doubts that they have the 60 million members they claim to have. With a bit of looking around online and wondering if other long time users felt the same way, the results I saw made me raise an eye as to how they can legitimately claim to have 60 million members. The only reference I ever see is others arguing that it most be great because they have 60 million members, but the skeptic in me says that they are using marketing math.

    • Briallyn Smith
      July 30, 2015 at 10:54 am

      Thanks so much for sharing your experiences, David!

      I'm sorry that you've had such negative experiences with Lumosity as a company, especially since their games really can be enjoyable (the train one has been one of my favourites recently)!

      I do agree that most of the numbers Lumosity comes up with are a little suspicious, and you're probably right to be suspicious of their LPI especially (how exactly is it calculated? is there any science behind it, or is it just a glorified scoring system?) - and I also agree that the 60 million is probably not an accurate depiction of active members!

      Do you mind if I ask what brain training tools you are using now? (I'm always so curious about new brain training opportunities!)

      • davidsilverlight
        July 30, 2015 at 1:50 pm

        Sure thing. The one that I am using now is CogniFit. The exercises that they have are not as simplistic as the ones in Lumosity, which is good and bad. There will be definitely be some games that I miss from Lumosity as well, such as Word Bubbles and Disillusion, and the daily sessions take less time from what I have seen. I also like the comparison to others that Lumosity has. In the end, there are alot of differences and new aspects to Cognifit that I like. It feels more scientifically based which makes it interesting to me as well. If I can return the question, what are some of the ones that are your favorites as well? One thing that I am noticing as I start using these types of programs is that you start doing better at the exercises after a while your score improves because you get better at playing them, although it appears that you are getting smarter. In the end, I enjoy them because they help me engage my brain at the start of the day and that still accomplishes that goal.

  3. ringhalg
    July 22, 2015 at 2:11 pm

    I have been a free member of Lumosity for a few years now. I usually play for a few months, then stop again for a few months. I've seen improvement in the games, but not much in real life. As a free member, you get to play 3 on the mobile app and three on the website, all games automatically (randomly) picked by Lumosity. I enjoy playing some of these games, so improving my brain skills would be a bonus because they're fun.

    Technology is one of the main reasons why we should be training our brains. As an example, I see people around me that can't do simple maths, adding and subtracting, without using a calculator.

    • Briallyn Smith
      July 30, 2015 at 10:50 am

      Thanks so much for your comment!
      I'm also still a Lumosity user, but I agree - it's mostly because I find the games enjoyable and challenging (and also incredibly frustrating at times!), not because I expect to see a large shift in my day-to-day brain skills.

      I do agree with you about technology, I know my mental math skills aren't nearly as good as my grandparents, for example. It will be interesting to see, in a few years, if we're actually just training our brains in completely new ways (i.e. will the parts of the brain that have been used for calculation now be repurposed for a different purpose?)

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