Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Letter
  • Published:

Putting brain training to the test


‘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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Figure 1: Benchmarking scores at baseline and after six weeks of training across the three groups of participants.
Figure 2: First and last training scores for the six tests used to train experimental group 1 and experimental group 2.

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. Aamodt, S. & Wang, A. Exercise on the brain. The New York Times〉 (2007)

    Google Scholar 

  2. Papp, K. V., Walsh, S. J. & Snyder, P. J. Immediate and delayed effects of cognitive interventions in healthy elderly: a review of current literature and future directions. Alzheimers Dement. 5, 50–60 (2009)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Smith, G. E. et al. A cognitive training program designed based on principles of brain plasticity: results from the improvement in memory with plasticity-based adaptive cognitive training study. J. Am. Geriatr. Soc. 57, 594–603 (2009)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Thorell, L. B., Lindqvist, S., Nutley, S. B., Bohlin, G. & Klingberg, T. Training and transfer effects of executive functions in preschool children. Dev. Sci. 12, 106–113 (2009)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Green, C. S. & Bavelier, D. Action video game modifies visual selective attention. Nature 423, 534–537 (2003)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  6. Baddeley, A. D. A three-minute reasoning test based on grammatical transformation. Psychometric Sci. 10, 341–342 (1968)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Conklin, H. M., Curtis, C. E., Katsanis, J. & Iacono, W. G. Verbal working memory impairment in schizophrenia patients and their first-degree relatives: evidence from the digit span task. Am. J. Psychiatry 157, 275–277 (2000)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  8. Elliott, R. et al. Effects of methylphenidate on spatial working memory and planning in healthy young adults. Psychopharmacology (Berl.) 131, 196–206 (1997)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  9. Mehta, M. A. et al. Methylphenidate enhances working memory by modulating discrete frontal and parietal lobe regions in the human brain. J. Neurosci. 20, RC65 (2000)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  10. Owen, A. M., Downes, J. D., Sahakian, B. J., Polkey, C. E. & Robbins, T. W. Planning and spatial working memory following frontal lobe lesions in man. Neuropsychologia 28, 1021–1034 (1990)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  11. Sahakian, B. J. et al. A comparative study of visuospatial memory and learning in Alzheimer-type dementia and Parkinson’s disease. Brain 111, 695–718 (1988)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Turner, D. C. et al. Cognitive enhancing effects of modafinil in healthy volunteers. Psychopharmacology (Berl.) 165, 260–269 (2003)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  13. Owen, A. M. et al. Visuospatial memory deficits at different stages of Parkinson’s disease. Neuropsychologia 31, 627–644 (1993)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  14. Cohen, J. Statistical Power Analysis for the Behavioral Sciences 2nd edn (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1988)

    MATH  Google Scholar 

  15. Gray, J. R., Chabris, C. F. & Braver, T. S. Neural mechanisms of general fluid intelligence. Nature Neurosci. 6, 316–322 (2003)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  16. Roca, M. et al. Executive function and fluid intelligence after frontal lobe lesions. Brain 133, 234–247 (2010)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Wright, S. B., Matlen, B. J., Baym, C. L., Ferrer, E. & Bunge, S. A. Neural correlates of fluid reasoning in children and adults. Frontiers Human Neurosci. 1, 1–8 (2008)

    Google Scholar 

  18. Owen, A. M., Doyon, J., Petrides, M. & Evans, A. C. Planning and spatial working memory examined with positron emission tomography (PET). Eur. J. Neurosci. 8, 353–364 (1996)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  19. Williams-Gray, C. H., Hampshire, A., Robbins, T. W., Owen, A. M. & Barker, R. A. Catechol O-methyltransferase val158met genotype influences frontoparietal activity during planning in patients with Parkinson’s disease. J. Neurosci. 27, 4832–4838 (2007)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  20. Duncan, J. et al. A neural basis for general intelligence. Science 289, 457–460 (2000)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  21. Duncan, J., Burgess, P. & Emslie, H. Fluid intelligence after frontal lobe lesions. Neuropsychologia 33, 261–268 (1995)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  22. Owen, A. M., Morris, R. G., Sahakian, B. J., Polkey, C. E. & Robbins, T. W. Double dissociations of memory and executive functions in working memory tasks following frontal lobe excisions, temporal lobe excisions or amygdalo-hippocampectomy in man. Brain 119, 1597–1615 (1996)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Owen, A. M. et al. Frontostriatal cognitive deficits at different stages of Parkinson’s disease. Brain 115, 1727–1751 (1992)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Wood, S. J. et al. Visuospatial memory and learning in first episode schizophreniform psychosis and established schizophrenia: a functional correlate of hippocampal pathology. Psychol. Med. 32, 429–443 (2002)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  25. Jäkälä, P. et al. Guanfacine and clonidine, alpha 2-agonists, improve paired associates learning, but not delayed matching to sample, in humans. Neuropsychopharmacology 20, 119–130 (1999)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Fowler, K. S., Saling, M. M., Conway, E. L., Semple, J. & Louis, W. J. Computerized delayed matching to sample and paired associate performance in the early detection of dementia. Appl. Neuropsychol. 2, 72–78 (1995)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  27. Bor, D., Duncan, J., Lee, A. C. H., Parr, A. & Owen, A. M. Frontal lobe involvement in spatial span: Converging studies of normal and impaired function. Neuropsychologia 44, 229–237 (2005)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Olton, D. S. in Spatial Abilities (ed. Potegal, M.) 325–360 (New York, 1982)

    Google Scholar 

  29. Passingham, R. Memory of monkeys (Macaca mulatta) with lesions in prefrontal cortex. Behav. Neurosci. 99, 3–21 (1985)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

Download references


A.M.O., A.H. and J.A.G. are supported by the Medical Research Council (U.1055.01.002.00001.01 and U.1055.01.003.00001.01). C.G.B. and S.D. are supported by the Alzheimer’s Society (UK). We thank the BBC Lab UK team for their contribution, which included the website, task design, data acquisition, recruitment of participants and coordination.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



A.M.O. co-designed the study, co-designed the training tasks, designed (with A.H.) the benchmarking tests provided by, 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, 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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Adrian M. Owen.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Figures 1-2 with legends. (PDF 515 kb)

PowerPoint slides

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Owen, A., Hampshire, A., Grahn, J. et al. Putting brain training to the test. Nature 465, 775–778 (2010).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing