Can “Brain Training” Protect us from Mental Decline and Dementia?

News flash . . . from the current New Yorker (July 24, 2016), Wall Street Journal (July 25, 2016), and Time (August 8, 2016) . . . “In the most rigorous study to date, researchers pitted different types of cognitive training head-to-head and concluded that one strategy in particular—a kind of computerized brain training that helps the mind to process information more quickly—can significantly lower rates of cognitive decline and dementia.”

So impressed is Time (from which those words come) that it promotes, at the article’s conclusion, a smartphone app available for $96 annually that the researcher recommends “for everyone over 50. . . . There’s now evidence that this type of training has multiple benefits, the risk is minimal, and it’s not even expensive.”

Money can’t buy advertising that credible-seeming. And the study is, indeed, impressive-sounding. It reportedly trained nearly 3000 people for five weeks and then followed them for 10 years.

But is this a case of premature hyping of research (via a University of South Florida press release)? Other prominent researchers with whom I have corresponded raise two caution flags.

First, a 2014 scientific consensus statement found “no compelling scientific evidence” that brain games can reduce or reverse cognitive decline and warned against “exaggerated and misleading claims.” Researcher Zach Hambrick summarizes: “Play a video game and you’ll get better at that video game, and maybe at very similar video games,” but not at driving a car or filling out your tax return. What is more, new research reviews—here and forthcoming in Psychological Science in the Public Interest (“Do ‘Brain Training’ Programs Work?”)—confirm that brain training appears not to produce any lasting, meaningful change apart from the training task.

Second, the newly reported findings, though presented at a convention, have not yet been published. As the New Yorker writer acknowledged, the “findings may not stand up to peer review, or they may turn out to be a fluke that cannot be replicated by others. Perhaps her central conclusion—that a dozen hours of training cuts the risk of dementia nearly in half, ten years later—will have to be walked back.”

With this level of publicity (including other outlets) there’s no easy walking back the public message. Will this big new study point us toward a brain-training program that does work? Stay tuned. And until such evidence is published and replicated, I’d suggest that we psychological educators not over promise.