In the study of more than 11,400 healthy adults, those who played brain-training games did get better at the specific tasks involved in the games, such as solving mathematical problems, but these improvements did not transfer into any other general mental abilities.
"I was surprised to find that millions of people are in involved in these activities, but there was very little solid, peer-reviewed scientific evidence that shows it works," says Adrian M. Owen, PhD, a neuroscientist and assistant director of the Medical Research Council (MRC) Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, England, in a telephone news conference. "If you are doing it for fun, it's fine, but if you expect improvements in your IQ or general function, our data suggests they will not make you any smarter overall."
Brain Training Study
In the experiment, which was launched by a BBC science show called Bang Goes the Theory, participants were placed into one of three groups after taking an online test to serve as a benchmark of their mental skills. People in one group honed their reasoning skills with brain-training games aimed at improving planning and problem-solving ability. Participants in another group played brain-training games designed to sharpen their short-term memory, attention, mathematical abilities, and visual-spatial skills. A comparison group was asked to answer general knowledge questions by surfing the Internet.
Participants were asked to train for 10 minutes a day, three days a week for six weeks, but many put in even more time.
None of the brain-training tasks transferred into improvements in any other mental abilities. The participants did get better in the specific tests that they practiced, and the more they trained, the better they got in these specific tasks, the study showed.
"Even for the people that trained more than average, there was still no translation to any general improvement in cognitive function," says study researcher Jessica A. Grahn, PhD, also with MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, during the telephone news conference. "Some of things they were practicing, like getting faster at math, may be useful in and of itself. But if you are [brain training] to see a generalized improvement in overall function, the evidence does not support it."
The new findings only apply to healthy adults who use these games to boost their general cognitive ability, not individuals with Alzheimer's disease or other cognitive disorders. "These results do not speak to Alzheimer's disease," Owens says.
Jane Martin, PhD, an assistant professor of psychiatry and director of the Neuropsychological Testing and Evaluation Center at New York's Mount Sinai Medical Center, says that "if someone has real cognitive impairment, we don't know that any of these games will help, and they can become very frustrated because they may think they will improve and they may not."
But brain training may play a small role in helping people with healthy brains stay sharp. "It can't hurt, and there is really no downside," she says.
Recipe for a Healthy Brain
A growing body of evidence does show that regular physical activity reduces the brain shrinking that may accompany advancing age, Martin says. "Social interaction and doing what you can to reduce risk factors for heart disease, such as eating a healthy diet, and keeping risk factors such as high blood pressure under control can also promote healthy brain aging," she says. "If it is good for the heart, it is good for the head."
Antiaging specialist Eric Braverman, MD, author of The Edge Effect: Achieve Total Health and Longevity With the Balanced Brain Advantage, says that brain training can play a small role in becoming smarter.
"This is just mild exercise, more like walking," he says. "You are not going to become a great athlete by just walking," he tells WebMD.
"Making people smarter is a massive enterprise and a lifetime's work," he says. "Brain-training games can be a small part as long as you don't get addicted and spend too much time in one little exercise." Braverman recommends playing these games for a half an hour a day and choosing something that you can't easily win.
Brain-training games are available all over the Internet and can be played on handheld computer devices. Nintendo offers Brain Age and Brain Age 2 on their handheld DS device
WebMD contacted Nintendo regarding the new findings. "The game requires users to perform a number of fun challenges incorporating simple arithmetic, memorization and reading. In this way it is like a workout for the brain and the challenges in the game can help stimulate the player's brain," according to a statement from Nintendo. "Nintendo does not make any claims that Brain Age and/or Brain Age 2 are scientifically proven to improve cognitive function."