Brain training is a big business. It promises to improve memory, attention and reasoning skills while making your brain work faster, become healthier and even prevent the onset of dementia. The industry is being driven byan aging global population, increasing awareness for brain fitness and advancements in technology. Thiscognitive assessment and training market size was forecasted to grow 32.3% from$1.98 Billion in 2016 to $8.06 Billion by 2021 (1). However, there is no consensus about the effect of brain training. Are popular programs like Lumosity worth the investment in money and time? Does brain training really work?
One in four of us will experience significant cognitive decline in our lifetime. The primary cause of this decline is traumatic brain injury, which affects 2.5 million people in the United States each year. Even mild traumatic brain injuries cause psychiatric illness that can drastically affect people’s lives (2). Undiagnosed brain injuries are a major cause of homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, depression, panic attack, ADHD and suicide (3). The quality of your life is dependent on how well your brain functions. If you improve the health of your brain through brain training (even a physically damaged brain), you consequently improve your life.
Cognitive assessment and training research are part of the science of neuroplasticity. Scientists believe that connections between neurons in your brain can change and adapt to new things. Such “plasticity” is easily observable in children and was believed to become fixed by adulthood. Now, scientists understand that there is still plasticity in the adult brain (4).
Losing plasticity is a feature of cognitive decline. In the same way that it is important to continue exercising your muscles to maintain muscular function as one ages, so too is it necessary to exercise the brain to prevent loss of function.
When researchers talk about getting smarter, they refer to what is called fluid intelligence, or the ability to reason and solve new problems. As such, fluid intelligence is an especially important component of learning, and ultimately a factor in both educational and professional success. Cognitive or brain training attempts to improve fluid intelligence by improving three brain functions:
Each of the three brain functions has limited capacity. Because these three functions may share the same neural networks used in fluid intelligence processes, training tasks that increase the capacity for attention, working memory and executive functions can translate into improved fluid intelligence. The result, according to the brain training industry, is that you become smarter.
In 2008, a study showed that training on specific memory tasks could improve fluid intelligence(5). This meant that devoting 10 - 15 minutes a day performing these exercises in the form of games could improve memory, attention and executive functions. However, by 2014, 70 neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists signed a statement in “A Consensus on the Brain Training Industry” warning, “We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do”(6).
It is an obvious and simple question, but it is not the right question. Consider that from the moment we are born, we are training our brain. As a species, it is brain training that allowed us to evolve fromhomo erectus tohomo sapiens sapiens. Our brains grew larger at the same time our brain activity increased. We solved more problems, our memories increased and more parts of our brain had to work together. All human history teaches that brain development IS brain training. The real question is, what kind of brain training is the most effective for developing specific aspects of fluid intelligence?
Meditation is perhaps the oldest form of brain training. Studies show that after just eight weeks, the connectivity in several parts of the brain is increased, resulting in greater attentional focus, enhanced sensory processing and increased reflective awareness of sensory experience (7). People who meditate frequently then carry these improvements into their daily lives (8).
Today, the term “brain training” is popularly understood to mean using games, crossword puzzles and software programs like Lumosity to do exercises that will translate into increased brain function, and hopefully, fluid intelligence. Do these exercises work? Or put more specifically, can the ability to reason and solve new problems be improved by simple cognitive exercises lasting ten to fifteen minutes? Because control of attention is essential for both working memory and fluid intelligence, some scientists are optimistic. Nevertheless, the jury is still out on this question. The idea that practice-based improvements transfer to other cognitive tasks is still a matter of controversy and there are no definitive answers.
Today, psychologists using magnetic resonance (MR), computed tomography (CT), positron emissions tomography (PET) and single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) imaging brain scans, along with intensive brain rehabilitation programs, are at the forefront of brain training research. They show that high levels of structural and functional brain improvement are possible (9). A key lesson, however, was highlighted by Daniel Amen during a 2013 Ted Talk discussing intensive traumatic brain injury rehabilitation: “Treatment needs to be tailored to individual brains, not clusters of symptoms”(10). Likewise, the future of brain training may show that it, too, needs to be tailored to individual brains as well.
Can a person consciously direct brain development through strategic, targeted tasks offered through the many brain training computer and smartphone apps? Can this really make a person smarter? Thousands of years of meditation emphatically says yes! While recent research on meditation is shown to have a significant impact on brain function, more research is needed on the efficacy of popular phone-based brain games. What is known for sure is that brain function is dependent on keeping your brain healthy and young.
Siphiwe Baleka - Contributing Writer, Physician's Choice