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September 6, 2018 

A new Western-led study has debunked claims that getting better at a brain-training game can translate to improved performance in other games and tasks. The newest findings add fuel to previous research that showed brain-training doesn’t make a person smarter, but merely improves their abilities in those specific games.The study, Targeted training: Converging evidence against the transferable benefits of online brain training on cognitive function, published in the journal Neuropsychologia, tested whether hours of training in one game could give someone an edge in a second game that exercises the same area of the brain.If that result were found, it would lend credence to the idea that brain training can bolster working memory, which is vital for learning and retaining information and in staving off memory loss.

But researchers found such transference simply didn’t happen.

Participants’ high scores on the first game (the one they trained on) didn’t improve performance on the second game and were equivalent to scores attained by the untrained control group, explained Bobby Stojanoski, a research scientist in the Owen Lab at Western’s Brain and Mind Institute and lead author of the paper.

For the study, the team recruited people to play one computer-based brain-training game – a working-memory task with increasingly difficult levels to find a token hiding behind squares – for a total of 13 hours during the course of 20 days. Their performances on that one game improved dramatically, peaking at about the 16th day.

Those same people were tested later on a similar game – which required them to remember series of digits rather than tokens – that relied on the same areas of their brain’s working memory processes.

“If there’s any evidence for brain training, for the transferrable benefits of brain training, this would be where we should see it because the training and the test tasks are so similar to each other. And yet, despite all that training on one task, you don’t see any transfer (of learning) to similar tests,” Stojanoski said.

The study was designed to maximize the likelihood of us finding evidence for transfer of skills from one game to the other, Stojanoski said.

“We hypothesized that if you get really good at one test and train for a really long time, maybe then you’ll get improvement on tests that are similar. Unfortunately, there’s just no evidence to support that claim. In fact, we show that doesn’t even lead to improvements to the things that are similar to the training test, let alone anything in a more general sense like IQ.”

The study comes at a time when a plethora of brain-training apps purport to improve cognition, strengthen memory and forestall mental impairment through specific computer-based games – cross-training the brain, some have claimed, in the same way high-performance athletes cross-train for fitness.

In 2010, Western neuroscientist Adrian Owen and an international team of researchers conducted the largest trial to date of brain-training computer games. Their findings showed zero transfer effects from the training tasks to more general tests of cognition. A paper based on their findings, Putting brain training to the test, was published in Nature in June 2010.

In 2015, Owen served as scientific advisor to CBC’s Marketplace for an investigation into brain-training games such as Lumosity. Those findings, yet again, found no significant improvement on any of the tests.

Owen, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience and Imaging at The Brain and Mind Institute, is the senior author of this new study, which was supported by BrainsCAN, Western’s $66-million Canada First Research Excellence Fund program in cognitive neuroscience.

The case against brain training for improved memory is now clearer than ever, Stojanoski said.

“As a scientist, I would never say anything is definitively closing the door on anything. In order to say that, you would have to test every single possible condition and every possible combination of conditions to really be sure. But I think this study provides convincing evidence that brain training doesn’t lead to improvements beyond the task you trained on.

“If you want to get really, really good at one task then just keep doing that task and you will get better at that. But you shouldn’t expect to get better at another task just because you got better at that one particular thing.”

But fear not, there are “proven ways to be better versions of yourself,” Stojanoski stressed.

“Sleep better. Exercise regularly. Eat better. Education is great. That’s the sort of thing we should be focused on. If you’re looking to improve your cognitive self, instead of playing a video game or playing a brain-training test for an hour, go for a walk, go for a run, socialize with a friend. These are much better things for you."