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A study carried out by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania suggests that commercial “Brain Training” games are no better for increasing cognitive function than other online games.

The study, which was led by the Baird Term associate professor in Psychology Dr. Jospeh Kable and the vice dean for Strategic Initiatives in the Perelman School of Medicine Dr. Caryn Lerman, was intended to demonstrate whether increased cognitive function can reduce a subject’s propensity for risky or impulsive decision making. In the end, results demonstrated that the brain training exercises increased cognitive function for participants only to the same extent as participants in a control group who played other online games and that the improvements did not lead to a change in decision making, or brain activity during decision making, for either group.

Using the popular Brain Trainer Lumosity, the study had 64 “healthy young adults” play for thirty minutes a day, five days a week, for ten weeks. The study also included a control group of another 64 similar members who were asked to play other online games (unfortunately the study didn’t specify which) for the same period. Participants were asked to perform decision-making tasks both before and after the training sessions, as well as cognitive tests that were not part of the training to assess any change in cognitive abilities. The impulsive decision making assessments involved a choice between a small immediate reward and a larger promised reward later, risky decision making was tested with a choice between larger rewards at a lower probability and smaller rewards at a higher probability. The assessments measured brain activity through fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) during the process as well as simply recording the decisions.

The reasoning behind the study was based on previously established suggestions that those with higher cognitive functions are less inclined towards risky and impulsive behavior. In essence, the team was looking into new methods for the control of addiction and other impulsive behavior. When asked about the motivations for the study in this Telegraph article, Dr Kable had this to say,

Our motivation was that there are enough hints in the literature that cognitive training deserved a real, rigorous, full-scale test. Especially given the addiction angle, we’re looking for things that will help people make the changes in their lives that they want to make, one of which is being more future-oriented.

The study also built on previous work by Dr Lerman, which demonstrated that neural activity in the parts of the brain associated with self-control can help predict whether a person can refrain from smoking. The logic behind their abstract was, according to Kable, “if you can train cognitive abilities and change activity in these brain structures then that may change your likelihood of impulsive behaviour.”

Brain Training tests, like those found in Lumosity, focus on what is known as “executive functions.” These are activities carried out by the brain that is viewed by neuroscience as command functions for all other cognitive abilities. They are heavily associated with how we manage ourselves, organize our time, plan tasks, and so on. While the logic behind brain training games suggests that training different areas of these functions will help bring improvements across the board, this study suggests differently. When cognitive tests were performed by participants, the study showed that “Participants in the [brain training group] improved with practice on the specific tasks they performed during training, but participants in both conditions showed similar improvement on standardized cognitive measures over time.”

However, it’s important to remember that this study is not suggesting that brain training games are useless, indeed, it helps support previous evidence that they can be beneficial. Both groups did show improvements in cognitive function, after all. It can even be said that this is all positive news on the gaming front, perhaps suggesting that many different types games can be used as a form of brain training. When you consider the number of games that require some form of time/resource management and forward planning, maybe these results should not be a surprise.


Quick Take

I’ve seen other media outlets, including the reputable UK paper I linked above, reporting this as “brain training games do not train the brain” or similar. I would like to think our readers are smart enough to see that is factually incorrect without me laboring the point. 


Dom O'Leary

Staff Writer

I'm a dyed in the wool gamer of the now irrelevant (I'm told) generation-X. If I'm not gaming, you'll find me writing about games, writing my wonderful fiction (opinions may differ), playing guitar, or eating... sleep is a distant memory.