Putting “brain training” to the test – and about time

Posted: April 21, 2010

The well-regarded journal Nature airs the question “does brain training work?” in a letter published on April 20th, 2010. The letter, based on a study conducted by the BBC and a research team based in Cambridge, England, concludes that the answer is “No”: “brain training” does not work.

This is an easily understood conclusion and it has been much publicized in the global media. There are many important and good things to learn from the project, for anyone who wants to read beyond the headline. But it is a flawed analysis and it is crucial to see the limitations in the study and understand what kind of “brain training” they are testing, and how.

The findings are not at all surprising. As a matter of fact, we at Cogmed pointed out that this is what they would find when the BBC announced the project, back in the fall of 2009. We were confident in this forecast, because their training program lacks all the characteristics of a serious cognitive training program. Their protocol and implementation is just fun and games.

They had no screening for suitable candidates with a specific problem, no focus on a specific cognitive function, no proven exercises based in neuroscience, and only a haphazard, low-effort training protocol. Finally, there was no coaching provided to the users – of course leading to very poor compliance. It would have been truly remarkable if they had managed to create any useful improvement in the users with this kind of “brain training”.

The large amount of attention given to these findings today tells us that there is a lot of misunderstanding about cognitive training. While the negative results are obvious to Cogmed, it is apparently news to the media that playing some nice games for a while does not substantially and sustainably improve one’s cognitive functioning. As any serious person would have assumed, it takes specific, intensive, and sustained training to change cognitive performance.

That this can be done has been shown in peer-reviewed and placebo-controlled studies, using the Cogmed program and protocol.

Cogmed has a number of peer-reviewed studies that show people with a specific Working Memory deficit can improve their functioning following an intensive, controlled, and coach supported training program – and that these improvements generalize to behavior and everyday life. This includes several randomized-controlled trials, studies documenting changes in brain functioning following training, and reports by independent research groups who have no affiliation with Cogmed. Crucially, our published research uses the very same software and protocol that is being used by hundreds of professionals around the world today, working with their clients.

For some reason, the authors of the study chose to ignore this body of research. Their research design instead uses the same easy-go-lucky protocol used by the simplest online “brain training” games. That may be fine, but it is inexplicable how they then proceed to use their findings to draw far-ranging conclusions about all kinds of cognitive training.

The Brain Test Britain study shows that confusion in the brain training market allowed ineffective games to gain short term media traction. What we see now is a backlash that is just as unfounded. This study will perhaps be the beginning of a new approach to cognitive training – one that is more in line with the philosophy Cogmed has applied from the beginning: focusing on research results, specific and scientifically designed exercises, an intensive and sustained protocol, and on proper implementation and support of the training.

Hopefully this media event can also help define the difference between “brain training” and research proven interventions that work – what we call “evidence-based cognitive training“.

A much sadder possible outcome from the BBC project is that the proverbial baby is thrown out with the bathwater. In some people’s minds, this can be taken to mean that our brains cannot be made to work better using cognitive training. It takes time for radical new research findings to make their way to the mainstream. This kind of overplayed research results and indiscriminate media reporting is not helping that process.

In the long run, only published research and real life benefits of each training program matter. Those are the strengths of Cogmed. Remember: not all “brain training” is created equal. Thus, before accepting the conclusion of this study – that cognitive training does not work – we urge you to review the extensive published research on Cogmed Working Memory Training that we believe supports a dramatically different conclusion.