Brain games. It doesn’t take more than a 2 second search in the Apple or Google Play stores to find hundreds of health apps that make compelling claims about their ability to help you improve or maintain your cognitive health. These games are incredibly popular and with good reason. Holding onto our mental faculties as we age is a primary concern for a lot of us and so when we come across something that promises to help us do that, how could we not test it out?
Recently, our staff had a conversation about these brain games and the prevailing question on all our minds was do these things really work? Can capturing word bubbles or tapping birds on a screen really transfer to real-world scientifically verifiable results? And if they do work, how can we max out their performance to get the most out of whatever games we choose to play?
This week, we'll answer these questions by taking a look at the origin of brain games and what types of claims the companies who market them make, examining the underlying science to see if the health claims can be substantiated, and looking at additional ways we can improve cognitive health as we age.
What’s in A Game?
Gaming has long been a facet of human civilization. From the ancient Egyptians all the way to the present day, people, both young and old, seem to really love playing games. Over the past 5-6 decades the idea of using games as learning tools has really taken off and when it comes to neuroscience, the use of brain games holds a pretty firm place as a way to keep our minds sharp. Technology has bridged the gap between old school memory games (remember those memory card games? Because we definitely do!) and newer games that allow players to test a variety of disciplines from memory to attention to critical thinking skills.
Makers of these games make some pretty outstanding claims. In our search of gaming apps in the Apple and Google Play stores we came across games that promised to:
- Improve memory, attention, speed, flexibility, and problem-solving
- Improve 23 specific cognitive functions including but not limited to--memory, executive function, reasoning, attention and concentration, etc.
- Test memory, concentration, agility, perception, and reasoning and give a brain index score so you can compare your results with others and improve
The idea of using games (and impressive claims of the expected results) to improve brain function isn’t that far off as it turns out and it has its foundations in neuroscience. The concept that our brains are full of malleable neurons (known as neuroplasticity) has origins in the late 1940s where the term was first used by Dr. Jerzy Konorski. However, it wasn’t until the 1960s that the concept took root and became a part of neuroscientific jargon. Since then, we’ve learned quite a bit about the malleable nature of the brain from experiments done in a variety of populations. For example, early studies on neuroplasticity showed that stroke survivors often experience a compensatory mechanism where healthy parts of the brain take over the function of the parts that were damaged. Another example that helped cement the idea of neuroplasticity in the scientific community was this study, originally published in 1997, showed that the grey matter in the posterior hippocampus of cab drivers learning London street layouts increased over time as did their memory; this study was one of the first to show that learning new information can change brain structure and function even after the brain has fully matured.
Go Deeper: Check out this video to gain a deeper understanding of neuroplasticity.
Take a deeper dive into the research behind neuroplasticity with these articles:
Is There Science to Support Gaming as a Way to Boost Cognitive Function?
So, if the underlying idea of these games is rooted in hard science, that should answer the question of whether the games work or not with a resounding yes. Well, not quite. Our dive into the research conducted on these games suggests a far more complicated picture rife with research obstacles and results that might best be taken with a grain of salt. Let’s explore.
In 2014 the Stanford Center on Longevity and the Berlin Max Planck Institute for Human Development gathered a group of scientists to examine the available data on the use of brain training games to boost cognition in healthy adults. After reviewing the data, the group issued a consensus (found here) which essentially says there is insufficient data to substantiate claims made by the makers of these games and that “claims promoting brain games are frequently exaggerated and at times misleading”. The reason they provide for their position has to do with the research procedures themselves. According to their statement, statistically relevant brain training results on specific cognitive markers sometimes spill over into other cognitive tasks, but ultimately are insubstantial to make any definitive conclusion. Results of these brain game studies may be subject to participant effects and there is no way to parse out the difference. To summarize the opinion, we found this quote:
“It is not sufficient to test the hypothesis of training-induced benefits against the assumption that training brings no performance increases at all. Rather, we need to establish that observed benefits are not easily and more parsimoniously explained by factors that are long known to benefit performance, such as the acquisition of new strategies or changes in motivation.”
The group also points out that studies on brain games should be conducted independently instead of by the companies that make and market them to control for bias, a fact that seems almost too obvious to point out.
This is a sentiment that has since been echoed in this 2016 opinion paper which also suggests studies on brain training games often run into statistics problems and study design flaws that make it impossible to draw definitive conclusions. One such statistical problem is that studies of brain games often examine results for a variety of cognitive tests and don’t control for the number of tests administered in the data analysis; the use of a wide range of tests allows researchers to look for potential gains in many areas, but without controlling for the number of tests given to the subjects, the likelihood that improvements in test scores in certain areas are occurring by chance can’t be ruled out. When it comes to design flaws, the major argument from brain game skeptics is that the available studies don’t use control groups. Control groups are used in research designs to help establish causality and with no controls, the results of these studies are subject to bias like as practice and placebo effects. In other words, subjects do better on cognitive performance tests either because they’ve already taken them once before the intervention or because they think the brain game is going to help them, so their scores improve.
Conversely, there is another camp that issued a statement in favor of the use of brain games to improve cognition on the heels of the statement from the Stanford and Berlin group. In an open letter from October 2014, a group of scientists, reporters, and consumers representing the Cognitive Training Data website issued a rebuttal, opining that skeptics of brain training games represent a minority of the larger community. While they agree that studies should be conducted independently, they disagree that there is “no compelling scientific evidence” for the use of brain games to reduce or reverse cognitive decline. While they cite no specific sources in the letter, their website provides a substantial list of studies spanning both before and after the open letter to support their claims.
The most recent study on their list, a twin study published in February of this year, provides an example of the types of studies provided as evidence on the website. In this 2021 study, researchers assessed the effectiveness of cognitive and emotional brain training and transfer effects to makers of wellbeing, depression, and anxiety in 352 sets of healthy adult twins. Subjects were randomized to treatment and control groups; the treatment group was asked to play brain training games for 30 days while controls were placed on a waitlist and went about their normal activity for 30 days. After the treatment period subjects were given assessment tests. Results of the study showed that both men and women who played the brain games showed improvements in emotional cognition when compared to controls.
On the positive side, the inclusion of a twin study in the research supporting brain games begins to settle the question of whether environmental and genetic influences alter the cognitive improvements shown in these types of studies. Still, the proliferation of randomized trials showing beneficial effects of brain games on cognitive processes doesn’t address psychology’s big problem when it comes to randomized trials—the lack of a placebo. The exclusion of a placebo from brain game trials doesn’t negate the results of these kinds of studies, but it does make it impossible to rule out placebo effects from the treatment group, a fact that psychology researchers know up front.
What Else Can We Do to Improve Brain Health?
Despite the controversy, aging research has demonstrated that our brains remain malleable throughout our lifespan. And while the research on brain games is muddled to say the least, nothing we found suggests that they make cognitive function worse. However, while the scientists parse out additional research brain training games, we found these 3 alternative strategies to foster a healthy brain into old age that you can try right now!
Learn Something New
Research suggests that learning a new language or activity increases the density of the grey matter in your brain and helps you improve attention, memory, and motor skills. Learning something new can also increase white matter in the brain to help with problem-solving, critical thinking, and focus.
Leave Home More Often
If you’ve been bit by the travel bug it can offer some serious brain benefits. Exposing yourself to new places puts your brain in a heightened state of awareness and activates pathways associated with learning and memory as your brain tries to make sense of its new environment. And it doesn’t have to be international travel either, even going to the next city or state over can provide your brain with enough stimulation to pump up the neurons in your hippocampus.
A lot of us subconsciously subscribe to the belief that you have to be good at artistic pursuits to engage in them, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. When it comes to making art and music, talent becomes irrelevant especially in light of the benefits to cognitive health that these activities provide. Research has shown that drawing and painting improves global cognition by encouraging the creation of neural pathways and strengthening existing ones, and when it comes to music, making music encourages neuroplasticity and provides positive changes in perception, memory, attention, and coordination.
Do you play brain games? If so, have you seen a difference in your daily function? Share your experiences with us: email@example.com
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