Brain training games – why we should give up now

Everyone has had that period in their life when they become obsessed with an online game, for some it’s Candy Crush, for others it’s that Kim Kardashian game, for me it was Lumosity.

With over 70 million users and supposedly having been created by neuroscientists, it promises to “train your brain,” in order to improve memory and other aspects of cognition. Another popular brain training app, Elevate, claims to “improve focus, speaking skills and processing speed”. With numerous brain training apps available it is clearly a million dollar industry. The fundamental promise of all of these apps, implied or explicit, is that brain training can make you smarter and therefore make your life better.

At 17.7% of the British population, the number of people aged 65 and over in Britain currently outnumbers the number of people aged 16 and under, and as the baby boom generation nears retirement, many people are worrying about their brain ability.

Millions of people experience the decline in memory associated with increasing age, and a significant proportion of these people will experience some form of dementia. With the Alzheimer’s Society predicting a 40% increase in the number of dementia cases over the next 12 years, scientists have argued that brain training games can act as a preventive measure to help reduce the occurrence of dementia and other cognitive impairments. The idea that brain training games will help is based on neuroplasticity, or the ability of the brain to change in response to new activities.

Most of the claims about improved memory and learning ability are based on studies on rodents, yet the question remains whether these games can make the human brain faster and stronger, which all current evidence suggests not.

Recently a group of world neuroscience experts met to discuss how well these supposed brain training games worked: their consensus statement says that “claims promoting brain games are frequently exaggerated and at times misleading”.

Whilst game scores do improve for most users. They are short-term improvements and do not apply to the wider brain function. In other words, practicing the games will improve scores but it has no impact on memory or thinking.

But surely it’s better to keep training our brains, in case new evidence that supports the claims of improved brain power is found? Unfortunately not. There is currently no evidence to suggest that brain training games will slow the onset of dementia, Alzheimer’s or other cognitive diseases. However, scientists have identified other activities, such as exercise and reading, which do help to improve cognitive functioning in the longterm.

So, it’s time to give up on the brain training apps; as well as not being able to deliver on their promises they are also a drain on your wallet. But there is still hope for the gaming addicts.

A 2014 study compared the impacts of playing Lumosity and the popular video game Portal 2 and found that those who played Portal 2 scored better on cognitive tests.  Sorry Lumosity, but you’ve been deleted for good.


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May 2021
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