Brain training? Think again, says study

26/02/2009 14:16

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THE GUARDIAN

 

26/02/2009

 People who spend money on "brain trainers" to keep their minds agile may get the same results by simply doing a crossword or surfing the internet, according to research published today.

A panel of experts, including eminent neuroscientists, found there was no scientific evidence to support a range of manufacturers' claims that the gadgets can help improve memory or stave off the risk of illnesses such as dementia.

Devices such as the Nintendo DS, endorsed by the actor Nicole Kidman and the singer Cheryl Cole, have enjoyed a surge of popularity recently. But the experts employed by the consumer group Which? concluded that much of the evidence supporting the claims was "weak" and that in some cases other activities, such as playing standard computer games, could have the same effect.

Importantly, none of the "brain training" claims were supported by peer-reviewed research published in a recognised scientific journal.

Which? asked a panel of scientific experts to examine gadgets and their claims. They included Dr Kawashima's Brain Training, Mindfit and Lumosity.

Martyn Hocking, editor of Which?, said: "If people enjoy using these games, then they should continue to do so - that's a no-brainer. But if people are under the illusion that these devices are scientifically proven to keep their minds in shape, they need to think again."

Which? members who had written to the organisation about brain training were asked to try the products for a month. One of the experts, Dr Adrian Owen, assistant director at the Medical Research Council's cognition and brain sciences unit in Cambridge, said of the research involving one group: "If they'd been asked to play Space Invaders for a month and improved at it - as surely they would - would we have concluded this was a beneficial form of brain training? Probably not."

Michael Scanlon, a neuroscientist from Lumosity, defended the company's research standards, and said: "We would never say Lumosity is proven to improve day-to-day living, but there is more and more evidence it does. We have actually conducted our own clinical trials to measure effectiveness of the product."

Also under the spotlight was Mindfit, a CD-Rom endorsed by the scientist Lady Greenfield. Two of the three studies it used to support its claims that it improved mental performance were found to be flawed. It also claimed that "cognitively challenging" activity protects against Alzheimer's. Bruce Robinson, chief executive of MindWeavers, which produces MindFit, said: "If you look at the wider evidence in the field the broad conclusion is that brain stimulation is working. With the MindFit product, a study was done by an independent medical centre in Israel which supported that evidence. We are not claiming MindFit will stop Alzheimer's."

Nintendo said: "Nintendo does not make any claims that Brain Training is scientifically proven to improve cognitive function. What we claim is the Brain Training series of games, like playing sudoku, are enjoyable and fun. These exercises can also help to keep the brain sharp."

Tried and tested

Dr Kawashima's Brain Training (Nintendo) £110 including DS console:

Instructions say it can help consolidate memory and creativity

Which? No evidence that using this product will have any functional impact on your life whatsoever

Mindfit (PC CD-ROM) £88

Company claims "exercises important abilities known to decline in later life"

Which? Tests didn't show using it was significantly better than playing Tetris

Lumosity (online training system) Luminos Labs, £4.99 a month

Company says: "Exercises ... designed to stimlulate neuroplasticity that leads to improved cognitive ability"

Which? Does not mean improvements on tasks will lead to improvements in day-to-day living

 

 'Brain training' claims dismissed

People who spend money on brain trainers to keep their mind sharp may well get the same benefit from simply doing a crossword, experts conclude.

Consumer group Which? asked three experts to check claims made about several devices, including the Nintendo DS, on memory and staving off dementia.

They found the evidence behind such claims was non-existent or "weak".

But there is evidence that exercise, a healthy diet and an active social life help keep an agile mind, Which? said.

Brain trainers, often promoted by celebrity endorsement, have been increasing in popularity.

 

 If people are under the illusion that these devices are scientifically proven to keep their minds in shape, they need to think again 
Martyn Hocking, Which? editor

They are marketed as helping to improve memory, keep the mind fit and active and in some cases to prevent dementia.

Manufacturers behind the products were asked what the benefits of their products were and what evidence they had to back up the claims.

The panel of scientists then gave their view on the research provided.

None of the claims was supported by peer-reviewed research in a recognised scientific journal and much of it was flawed, they concluded.

Memory decline

According to the Which? report, Dr Kawashima's Brain Training for the Nintendo DS, which costs £110 with the console, says that use "can help consolidate memory and creativity and may hopefully help develop a resistance against decline in later life".

The exercises are chosen because they increase blood flow to the frontal cortex region of the brain.

But the experts said surfing the internet or chatting to friends would produce the same effects on blood flow.

Dr Chris Bird, a clinical neuroscientist at University College London added: "There is no evidence that using this product will have any functional impact on your life whatsoever".

Another product looked at was the £88 Mindfit for the PC, which the company says "exercises important abilities that are… known to decline in later life, such as short-term memory".

However, results did not show that it was any better than standard computer games such as Tetris, said Dr Adrian Owen, a senior scientist at the Medical Research Council's Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit.

The team also looked at Lumosity online training system, which costs £4.99 a month, MindSpa, a £175 system which uses audiovisual stimulation to promote relaxation and increase focus, and the £9.99 Test and Improve Your Memory computer programme.

None of the manufacturers' claims on improved cognition are supported by evidence that meets the minimum standard by which scientific research is judged, the panel said.

Martyn Hocking, editor at Which?, said: "If people enjoy using these games, then they should continue to do so - that's a no-brainer.

"But if people are under the illusion that these devices are scientifically proven to keep their minds in shape, they need to think again."

A spokesman for Nintendo said they did not claim that Brain Training is scientifically proven to improve cognitive function.

"What we claim is the Brain Training series of games, like playing sudoku, are enjoyable and fun. These exercises can also help keep the brain sharp."

Bruce Robinson, chief executive of MindWeavers, which sells MindFit, said they were not claiming that it would stop Alzheimer's.

"Serious brain stimulation software is an emerging field.

"Others who have reviewed the wider evidence, notably New Scientist and the British Medical Journal, have drawn the conclusion it is difficult not to conclude brain training works, under some circumstances."

He added: "Properly designed cognitively challenging products clearly have a role to play alongside other things including exercise, diet and social interaction, and it is up to the individual to choose what they want to do."

 


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