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Brain Training Apps: Usefulness and Public Perception


Numerous “brain training” apps are available today and they often claim significant benefits for attention, memory, concentration and more.

Examples of some of the popular brain training apps include BrainHQ, Cogmed, and Lumosity. Utilizing puzzles and games, these apps tout benefits such as “better brain health” and “sustained improvements in working memory from childhood to adulthood.” And brain training apps are clearly popular; Lumosity alone claims more than 70 million users worldwide. However, in January 2016, Lumosity reached a $2 million settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over allegations of deceptive advertising related to the benefits of brain training, especially for older adults.

This may leave many wondering: Do brain training apps work? That is the question posed by a group of researchers led by Daniel J. Simons with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in a 2016 review.

Previous scientific reports and assessment have arrived at conflicting conclusions. In 2014 two reports came to very different conclusions. The Stanford Center on Longevity and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development issued an open letter signed by more than 70 psychologists and neuroscientists, stating that “To date, there is little evidence that playing brain games improves underlying broad cognitive abilities, or that it enables one to better navigate a complex realm of everyday life.” The letter concludes: “The consensus of the group is that claims promoting brain games are frequently exaggerated and at times misleading.”

Several months later a group of more than 130 scientists responded with a letter that argued “a substantial and growing body of evidence shows that certain cognitive training regimens can significantly improve cognitive function, including in ways that generalize to everyday life.”

In 2016 Simons and colleagues conducted a review focused specifically on whether brain training programs improve how people perform in real-world activities that matter in their personal lives or in school or at work.

They found:

Extensive evidence that brain-training interventions improve performance on the trained tasks in the programs, but little evidence that they help with cognitive performance overall.

These results partly explain the conflicting evidence on brain training. These programs do make users better at the program itself, but that learning and training may not generalize outside of the program and into the real world.

What do these conflicting reports and nuanced conclusions mean for public perception? In a separate effort, a group of researchers set out at look at people’s beliefs about the brain training apps: “why consumers choose to download these apps, how they use them, and what benefits they perceive.”

The researchers, led by John Torous, M.D., with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and Patrick Staples of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health also in Boston, conducted an online survey in 2015. It was completed by more than 3,000 people, more than half under age 30. Among respondents, 69 percent had used health apps and 55 percent had used a brain training app. They held generally positive beliefs about the brain training apps and their perceptions were similar between those than had used brain training apps and those who had not, which the authors discuss may suggest the role of a placebo effect.

More than two-thirds of respondents said they believe brain training apps help with thinking (67 percent), with memory (70 percent) and with attention (69 percent). But 55 percent of respondents said that the apps can improve mood (for which there is little evidence), suggesting positive views on brain training extend beyond their cognitive claims. When asked about barriers and concerns, respondents were concerned about cost and effectiveness of the apps, but not concerned about a lack of clinician endorsement or data security.

So despite the lack of definitive evidence for benefits beyond the immediate task being practiced, millions of people are using bran training programs; maybe part of the draw is just the hopeful notion of improving yourself while playing games.

Simons and colleagues conclude that if your hope is to stave off the cognitive decline in aging or to improve performance at school or work, “you should be skeptical of any quick fixes: the evidence largely does not support claims of broad cognitive benefits from practicing the sorts of cognitive tasks used in most brain-training software.” However, if your goal is to “improve your performance on the trained tasks, then using brain-training software may be an efficient and entertaining way to do so” and it could improve your motivation for other training.



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