Putting brain training to the test

Journal name:
Nature
Volume:
465,
Pages:
775–778
Date published:
DOI:
doi:10.1038/nature09042
Received
Accepted
Published online

‘Brain training’, or the goal of improved cognitive function through the regular use of computerized tests, is a multimillion-pound industry1, yet in our view scientific evidence to support its efficacy is lacking. Modest effects have been reported in some studies of older individuals2, 3 and preschool children4, and video-game players outperform non-players on some tests of visual attention5. However, the widely held belief that commercially available computerized brain-training programs improve general cognitive function in the wider population in our opinion lacks empirical support. The central question is not whether performance on cognitive tests can be improved by training, but rather, whether those benefits transfer to other untrained tasks or lead to any general improvement in the level of cognitive functioning. Here we report the results of a six-week online study in which 11,430 participants trained several times each week on cognitive tasks designed to improve reasoning, memory, planning, visuospatial skills and attention. Although improvements were observed in every one of the cognitive tasks that were trained, no evidence was found for transfer effects to untrained tasks, even when those tasks were cognitively closely related.

At a glance

Figures

  1. Benchmarking scores at baseline and after six weeks of training across the three groups of participants.
    Figure 1: Benchmarking scores at baseline and after six weeks of training across the three groups of participants.

    PAL, paired-associates learning; SWM, spatial working memory; VSTM, verbal short-term memory. Bars represent standard deviations.

  2. First and last training scores for the six tests used to train experimental group 1 and experimental group 2.
    Figure 2: First and last training scores for the six tests used to train experimental group 1 and experimental group 2.

    The first and last scores for the control group are also shown. Bars represent standard deviations.

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Author information

Affiliations

  1. MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, 15 Chaucer Road, Cambridge CB2 7EF, UK

    • Adrian M. Owen,
    • Adam Hampshire &
    • Jessica A. Grahn
  2. King’s College London, Institute of Psychiatry, De Crespigny Park, London SE5 8AF, UK

    • Robert Stenton,
    • Said Dajani,
    • Robert J. Howard &
    • Clive G. Ballard
  3. University of Manchester and Manchester Academic Health Science Centre, Manchester M13 9PL, UK

    • Alistair S. Burns

Contributions

A.M.O. co-designed the study, co-designed the training tasks, designed (with A.H.) the benchmarking tests provided by http://www.cambridgebrainsciences.com, co-conducted the statistical analysis, interpreted the data and took overall responsibility for writing each draft of the manuscript. A.H. contributed to the design of the training tasks, designed (with A.M.O.) and programmed the benchmarking tests provided by http://www.cambridgebrainsciences.com, co-conducted the statistical analysis and contributed to each draft of the manuscript. J.A.G. co-conducted the statistical analysis, contributed to the interpretation of the data, co-wrote the first draft of the manuscript and contributed to each subsequent version. R.S. designed the data capture, data checking and data cleaning protocols and was responsible for converting data into a format for analysis and for the delivery of the trial database for statistical analysis. He was part of the project management group and contributed to each draft of the manuscript. S.D. contributed to the design of the study, piloted brain training modules, contributed to the design and implementation of the recruitment and retention strategies, was part of the project management group and contributed to each draft of the manuscript. A.S.B. was chair of the independent trial steering committee and advised on key aspects of study design and implementation in this capacity. He also contributed to each draft of the manuscript. R.J.H. advised on key aspects of general study design, contributed to the design of the training tasks and contributed to each draft of the manuscript. C.G.B. jointly conceived of and jointly designed the study and wrote the first draft of the protocol. He was part of the project management group, co-conducted the statistical evaluation, contributed to the interpretation of the data and contributed to each draft of the manuscript.

Competing financial interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Comments

  1. Report this comment #19937

    Sergej Andrejev said:

    The paper says that individuals were attending 3 sessions a week. It would be interesting to know whether more sessions a week would make any difference.

  2. Report this comment #68925

    Sarah Rain said:

    It just seems like a lazy way for people to feel like they're improving themselves intellectually.

    Compared to say, reading academic papers on a field of your choice (scientific, mathematical, philosophical, etc.), which take a lot longer to understand deeply and a lot more background knowledge. Putting aside really understanding a topic by tackling problems within it.

    Yet, I think the harder option, will see more self-improvement. We probably have the intelligence we're given, so all we can do is work with it and try to gain as much knowledge as possible, even if for some that comes easier than for others .

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