In a powerhouse of a publication, Adrian Owen and his colleagues have taken a broadside at the field of brain fitness software. Together with the BBC popular science program Bang Goes the Test, they recruited 11,430 people who completed an average of twenty-four 10 minute training sessions over the six weeks that the experiment was run. All of these individuals underwent cognitive testing before and after brain training, and the results were pretty clear: brain training provided no benefit other than improvement on the task that people trained with. In their words:
In our view these results provide no evidence to support the widely held belief that the regular use of computerized brain trainers improves general cognitive functioning in healthy participants beyond those tasks that are actually being trained.
There will be much debate about this study in the days and weeks to come, much of it focused on the details, which, as we all know, is where the devil habitually resides. In particular, it will be very important for experts to examine the specific tests being employed and compare them to what has been previously published, especially for those brain training regimes that have reported improvements in fluid intelligence. One thing is clear: the numbers of participants make it difficult to refute Owen et al.’s findings, and certain make replication a challenge.
Personally, I see Owen et al.’s study as a healthy development, indicating that the field is moving from adolescence into early adulthood. Indeed, with pharmaceuticals of all stripes we are quite accustomed to optimistic early results only to find in later, larger trials (especially after the drugs are released into use by the general population) that a subtle effect is seen which was not observed in earlier clinical trials. Moreover, it is likely to spur further investigation, which again can only be healthy. The results, and our interpretation of those results, are likely to change over time.
I will admit to being among those who had hoped that brain training would produce impressive effects. But in the end, I am a slave to data. Anything less would be wishful thinking.
For more about the study, see the following video from the Nature Video.
Image source: Nature Publishing Group and Rex Features
Hat tip to Sofia Lombera for alerting me to the video