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How beneficial are brain training apps?

A review of commercially available brain training apps has revealed while some brain training apps can help slow cognitive decline, others have no clinical evidence behind the claims they are stating.

A study found that some brain training apps can assist in promoting healthy brain aging (Source: Shutterstock)
A study found that some brain training apps can assist in promoting healthy brain aging (Source: Shutterstock)

Researchers from Edith Cowan University examined 26 peer-reviewed studies examining the effectiveness of seven brain training programs for people aged over 50.

Lead researcher Professor Ralph Martins from the School of Medical and Health Sciences says the review was conducted to help give clinicians guidance when advising their patients.

“We found that the current evidence indicates that at least some of the commercially available brain training programs can assist in promoting healthy brain aging,” he says.

Researchers examined the scientific claims made by 18 companies that produce brain training programs, which are commonly available for personal computers or as apps. They found 11 of those companies had no clinical trials or empirical evidence indicating they were effective.

Products of the remaining seven companies were categorised into three levels based on the strength of the evidence of their effectiveness. A Level 1 program was required to have at least two well-designed randomised controlled trials, one of which had to be of high quality.

Level 2 required only one high-quality randomised controlled trial, while Level 3 required only one moderate/poorly designed randomised controlled trial.

The brain training programs BrainHQ and Cognifit met the criteria for Level 1. Cogmed, BrainAge 2 and My Brain Trainer were classified in Level 2 and Dakim and Lumosity were in Level 3.

The benefits of some brain training games came under doubt towards the end of last year when a review carried out by the University of Illinois found little evidence that brain-training games gave any real benefits. 

The review found numerous problems with the way many of the cited studies were designed and how the evidence was reported and interpreted. The problems included small sample sizes and studies in which researchers reported only a handful of significant results from the many measures collected.

“The idea behind ‘brain training’ is that if you practice a task that taps a core component of cognitive ability, like memory, the training will improve your ability to perform other tasks that also rely on memory, not just in the lab, but also in the world,” says University of Illinois psychology professor Daniel Simons, who led the analysis.

However, he points out if you practice remembering playing cards, you’ll get really good at remembering playing cards. 

“But does that help you remember which medications to take, and when? Does it help you remember your friends’ names? Historically, there is not much evidence that practicing one task improves different tasks in other contexts, even if they seem to rely on the same ability,” he says.

Tejal Shah, first author of the Australian review points out some apps are backed up by strong clinical trials which have shown they really are helping people.

“Some apps have certain types of memory testing,” she highlights. “People need to consider why they have been recommended a brain training app, such as whether it’s for a healthy brain, for rehabilitation, dementia or for kids, and look for the science or the evidence of its claims.”

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