New study questions impact of brain-training games

by Brett Henebery11 Jul 2017
A landmark study examining brain-training games has found that they have no more effect on healthy brains than standard video games.

The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, involved 128 young adults who were tested for mental performance after playing either Luminosity brain-training games or regular video games for 10 weeks.

According to the results, there was no evidence that the specialised brain-training games led to any improvements in decision-making, sustained attention or memory.

Caryn Lerman and Joseph Kable at the University of Pennsylvania examined whether brain-training games could help people control risky or impulsive behaviors.

“You can predict using brain imaging data who will succeed and who will fail in an attempt to quit smoking,” Lerman told the Washington Post.

To help with this process, they studied the ‘executive control network’ (ECN) of the brain, which is more active in those who will likely quit. The ECN is important for self-control, planning, and goal-setting.

For example, when we are focused on a task and forming memories, the ECN is activated, but when we begin to daydream, our “default mode network” takes over.

Other studies have suggested cognitive exercises such as brain games increase activity in the ECN, but few have shown translation of that increase into everyday activities.

“People who choose immediate rewards over long-term benefits are more likely to engage in risky behaviors,” Lerman said.

However, she noted that the new study does not say these games won’t help aging adults.

Lerman said any activity that requires playing close attention flexes our ECN, and it’s possible that older people may benefit from such exercises even though youthful brains don’t.

Mara Mather, professor of gerontology and psychology at the University of Southern California, said it is also possible that there are subtle effects that aren’t measurable within 10 weeks, adding that people who have suffered from brain injuries or addiction might also respond differently.

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