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Putting brain training to the test

Abstract

‘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.

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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.

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Acknowledgements

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.

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Authors and Affiliations

Authors

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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Adrian M. Owen.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Owen, A., Hampshire, A., Grahn, J. et al. Putting brain training to the test. Nature 465, 775–778 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature09042

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