"Brain games" don't live up to the hype, researchers say

A review of so-called “brain games” by some of the world’s top neuroscientists and psychologists mostly boils down to this: Too much play and not enough work won’t make Jack (or Jane) a smart person.

The review panel, which includes UO psychology professor and department head Ulrich Mayr, issued a statement this week panning the growing brain-game industry, saying that current research doesn’t support the notion that structured computer games lead to better brain health or performance. They said advertising for the games play on the fear of an aging population and are no substitute for commonplace activities that are known to benefit health and cognition.

“We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do,” the statement reads. “…In the judgment of the signatories below, exaggerated and misleading claims exploit the anxieties of older adults about impending cognitive decline.”

The statement is signed by approximately 70 researchers from more than 30 universities in six nations and was based on a review of numerous previous studies. It was issued Monday, Oct. 20, by the Stanford Center for Longevity at Stanford University and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, Germany.

Mayr, one of the co-authors of the statement, said it’s important to continue research into how the brain learns and what people can do to boost mental agility or hold off the effects of aging. But so far, he said, the science doesn’t support the claims of brain-game providers.

“Our main goal in this statement is to clarify the kind of empirical evidence that would justify recommending commercially available brain training programs for improving cognitive functioning,” said Mayr, the UO's Robert and Beverly Lewis Professor of Psychology. “Our conclusion is that such evidence is currently not available, despite what aggressive marketing about benefits ‘based on neuroscience’ seem to suggest.”

Those who want to stay mentally sharp are better off following a prescription that has been shown to help: a healthy diet, regular exercise and a good dose of social activity. Time spent on brain games, Mayr and his fellow researchers say, is time that could be better spent on things that might actually help.

“Essentially, what the approximately 70 experts on learning, memory and cognitive aging who have signed on to this statement are telling us is that to improve or maintain their own cognitive functioning they would spend neither time nor money on brain training programs,” Mayr said. “While research currently cannot offer a magic bullet against the negative effects of aging, obvious things such as an engaged lifestyle, cardiovascular fitness and healthy eating remain the safest bets.”  

Of greatest concern, the scientists said, are claims or implications that brain games will prevent, slow or reverse Alzheimer’s disease. Such statements are “devoid of any scientifically credible evidence,” they said.

Also, Mayr cautioned against the use of brain training programs in schools. The results of Mayr’s own research suggest those programs divert money and time away from effective teaching programs.

“The costs of such programs are particularly apparent when, as is already happening in some school districts in the United States, they are used at the taxpayer’s expense in schools, replacing regular, teacher-driven instruction,” he said. “…The benefits we find are negligible and inconsistent and clearly do not warrant replacing valuable class time through such training programs.”

Other UO researchers have reached similar conclusions. A study by UO psychology professor Elliot Berkman published earlier this year found little overall change in brain functioning from online training programs.

—By Greg Bolt, Public Affairs Communications