December 7, 2013

Can You Use Games to Train Your Brain?

by Allison Holllis, Pharm.D., PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, University of Maryland Medical Center

Ever have trouble recalling the location of objects, remembering people’s names soon after they’ve introduced themselves, maintaining focus on important tasks all day, calculating figures in your head, or determining the best course of action?  Of course you have.  We all have!  We’ve spent years cramming entirely too much information into our heads and will spend the rest of our lives digging through the trenches of our brains trying to pull out stored information. If only there was a fun app to help keep our minds sharp, recall important information at the drop of a hat, improve our attention span, and increase our problem solving ability. Maybe there is!

LumosityTM is a web-based application that presents a variety of game-like exercises with the intent of improving your cognitive abilities. According to the Lumosity website, setting aside a few minutes each day to complete the tasks provided on their app can make you "smarter, sharper, and brighter."1  The exercises designed by the folks a Lumosity are intended to improve specific brain functions such as sustaining attention, thinking before acting, visual and auditory processing, listening and reading.  Can playing games improve your brain power?  Sounds too good to be true!  Does brain training really work? The evidence is controversial.

A 2008 study by the psychologist Susanne Jaeggi found that memory training increased intelligence and implied that a person could boost their IQ by a full point per hour of training.2 However, when a group of psychologists working at Georgia Tech tried to replicate the findings, with tougher controls, there was no evidence that it increased intelligence.3

A group of researchers in San Francisco examined whether Lumosity led to improvements in visual attention and working memory.  Participants were given initial cognitive assessments, randomly assigned to a training intervention group or waitlist control group, and then cognitive assessments where performed again following the intervention periods.4  The training intervention consisted of cognitive exercise sessions (20 minutes per day) using the Lumosity app. They found that the trained group improved significantly over the control group in the areas of visual acuity and working memory.

Could these brain games be useful in people with dementia and other cognitive impairments?  A 2013 study of brain training exercises in older adults with mild cognitive deficits found no statistically significant difference in the treatment and control groups.  But there was a trend toward better performance in the treatment group in those with the least impairment at baseline.5

The largest study ever conducted on brain training involved 11,430 participants who trained several times each week on cognitive tasks designed to improve reasoning, memory, planning, visuospatial skills, and attention.6  Although improvements were observed performing each of the cognitive tasks that participants were trained to do, there was no evidence of transfer to tasks they were not trained to do — even tasks that are cognitively related. The researchers found that regular players of brain games got better at the games themselves but did not experience marked improvement in fluid intelligence (the ability to solve novel problems and adapt to new situations). Researchers attributed the improvements not to increasing memory and skills but rather to learning how to play the games better and memorizing the answers.

Is there a role for brain training and apps like Lumosity in our classrooms? Applications such as Lumosity can be a fun way for students to engage in the learning process without even realizing they are learning! Lessons like math, spelling, and vocabulary can be taught via brain apps that quiz students and they can reinforce topics discussed in class.  Educators can also teach specific skills by playing games.  If these games present realistic cognitive tasks that are reasonably similar those needed in the “real world,” it can perhaps help students develop the necessary skills to be better practitioners.  Even if lessons aren’t targeted toward specific skills that might be used in practice, brain-training apps may be a useful way to help students build memory, perform calculations, and remain focused.

So the next time you are having trouble remembering where you left your keys or want to get better at Sudoku, consider Lumosity (and similar cognitive training tools) to help train your brain.  While it may or may not help you analyze clinical trial data or make important life decisions, it’s a fun way to keep you entertained during your next road trip!

1.   Lumosity [Internet]. [cited 2013 Sept 25]
2.   Jaeggi S, Buschkuehl M, Jonides J, Perrig W. Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory. PNAS Early Edition. 2008:10:1-5.
3.   Redick TS, Shipstead Z, Harrison TL, Hicks KL, Fried DR, Hambrick DZ, Kane MJ, Engle RW. No evidence of intelligence improvement after working memory training: a randomized, placebo-controlled study. J Exp Phychol Gen 2013:142:359-79.
4.   Hardy J, Drescher D, Sarkar K, Kellett G, Scanlon M. Enhancing visual attention and working memory with a web-based cognitive training program. Mensa Research Journal 2007: 42:13-20.
5.   Zhuang JP, Fang R, Feng X, Xu XH, Liu LH, Bai QK, Tang HD, Zhao ZG, Chen SD. The impact of human-computer interaction-based comprehensive training on the cognitive functions of cognitive impairment elderly individuals in a nursing home. J Alzheimers Dis. 2013:1:36:245-51.
6.   Owen AM, Hampshire A, Grahn JA, Stenton R, Dajani S, Burns AS, Howard RJ, Ballard CG. Putting brain training to the test. Naure 2010:456:775-8.

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