The Promise and Perils of Brain Training
Dec. 11, 2014 -- Want to be smarter, think faster, boost your memory, and stretch your attention? There’s a billion-dollar brain training industry that’s ready to help.
Seniors striving to stay sharp, parents looking for drug-free ways to help kids with learning disorders, brain injury patients, burn victims, business executives, and athletes are all turning to computer apps, games, and programs for a mental edge.
While a handful of early experiments have hinted that brain training might offer some benefits, experts caution that the claims behind many brain training games and apps have far outstripped what science has been able prove. And so far, the industry has operated largely unnoticed by federal regulators.
Consumers can end up spending large amounts of money on these programs, part of a $1.3 billion industry that’s growing rapidly every year.
What are they getting in return?
“I look at it, to some degree, like the supplement industry, you know, where people are scrambling to take this, that, and the other supplement, and there’s not a lot of data showing that these supplements have that much of a positive impact,” says Peter Finn, PhD. He's a clinical psychologist and expert in substance abuse at Indiana University in Bloomington. The National Institutes of Health just awarded Finn a $2.3 million grant to study whether brain training to boost working memory might help alcoholics and other substance abusers.
“It’s unethical,” he says.
And many brain researchers agree with him. Last week, an international group of 69 neuroscientists and psychologists penned an open letter to caution consumers that the claims being made by the brain-game companies aren’t scientifically proven.
Even so, many serious scientists -- including at least one who signed that letter -- are equally reluctant to completely dismiss brain training, which they believe has real promise, if not definitive proof.
And researchers are hot on the trail of that proof. In the last fiscal year alone, the government funded at least $5 million in brain training studies. The studies are testing the approach as a remedy for everything from schizophrenia to substance abuse. That doesn’t include many more millions being spent by private companies hoping to sell brain training programs to consumers.
“I’m a little afraid that if the message is too strong -- that this is all a bunch of made-up stuff -- then we have the risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” says Adam Gazzaley, MD, PhD. He's a professor of neurology and a brain game developer at the University of California, San Francisco.