Cognitive Brain-Training Games: Established Science or too Good to be True?

Updated: Aug 22, 2018

By Avery St. Sauveur


What if I told you there was a way to prolong aging?


Commercial brain-training companies such as Lumosity insist that their products can do this. But is the research really behind it?


Could brain training games be an easy yet effective way to maintain healthy cognitive functioning?

Art by Macy Chutoransky

As research on the aging brain advances, so does the understanding of the mechanisms behind it. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, researchers began to understand long term potentiation (LTP), the concept that there are cellular mechanisms in the human brain that help form and retrieve memories. It is understood currently that LTP is controlled by two-way interactions on the cellular level; a communication between cells adapt to incoming stimuli, mediated by enduring intracellular changes. In the simplest possible terms, LTP is the method by which synapses in the brain are strengthened by persistent use.


What if there was an easy but effective way to maintain healthy cognitive functioning?


This persistent use encourages plasticity, the idea that the brain, especially the hippocampus (which is partly responsible for memory formation and storage), is malleable and can change structurally and functionally over a person’s lifetime (Curves et al. 2001). On the other hand, long term depression represents the opposite of LTP, in which synapses weaken and thus memory-making/retrieval are diminished (Ryan et al. 2015). LTD is associated with aging and has implications for the mechanisms behind dementia and even the learning aspects of diseases such as addiction. Could simple games help reverse this process?


While companies such as Lumosity insist that research is an important component of their game-design process, it isn’t entirely understood how the games work, and if they even work at all. Researchers introduced nearly 130 young adult participants to commercial brain-training games in an effort to understand whether or not they are effective, particularly with decision-making. Participants were randomly assigned to three different experimental groups, the first group training for 10 weeks with commercial brain-training games, the second playing web-based video games for 10 weeks, and the third maintaining their usual lifestyle throughout the training period. Participants were tested with cognitive assessments pre- and post-training and were scanned via fMRI to observe any changes in delay discounting (making choices between immediate, smaller rewards and larger, future rewards) and risk sensitivity (making decisions between large, risky rewards and small, safe rewards).


Is the research really behind Lumosity?


The results were not supportive; researchers couldn’t find evidence of any benefit from brain-training games. In fact, there were minimal differences observed across any of the groups pre- and post-training (Kable et al. 2017). Though participants in the study were young and aging processes were negligible, the lack of improvement found post-training is still indicative of the games’ ineffectiveness. Commercial brain-training companies market their products with the assertion that their games will help to reinforce higher-level executive functions, including the abilities to learn and to retain memories. Kable et al.’s findings are, for the moment, particularly damning.


This finding comes at a time when companies such as Lumosity garnered public scrutiny; a couple of years ago, Lumos Labs, the developers of Lumosity, settled for $2 million after alleging that their product could help prevent dementia-type diseases without FDA approval (The Associated Press 2016). But, as easy as it is to criticize this misstep and the project altogether, there are components of the Lumosity mission that have value. Memory and the ability to learn are both integral components of the human identity; our memories shape us and guide our interactions with each other, our futures, and ourselves. We understand ourselves through the scope of our prior experiences. Dementia and even the natural forgetfulness of old age strip us of these experiences.


Can we prolong the aging process?


Lumosity effectively harnesses the spirit of the 21st century, that is, aiming to provide a simple solution to the convoluted understanding of how we age in a time in which we are pushing the boundaries of mortality. With technology rapidly advancing and prolonging our lifespans, it’s enticing to think that we can impact our own mortality, and the quality of that mortality, with something as simple and convenient as an online game.


But the truth is that our understanding of the aging process is not up to speed with this innovation. This product represents an ideal that current neuroscience simply cannot get behind. We’re still striving to fully understand our own mortality. But while this is true for the moment, research is an ongoing processes; we understand more and more about our brains every day. Endeavoring to understand more about the hippocampus and LTP may help us circle back to this idea of brain-training games, or something similar, to help enduring LTP. For now, we must understand the limitations of present science and take stock in the rapid progress coming our way.


References:


Kable, J. W., Caulfield, M. K., Falcone, M., McConnell, M., Bernardo, L., Parthasarathi, T.,

Cooper, N., Ashare, R., Audrain-McGovern, J., Hornik, R., Diefenbach, P., Lee, F. J., &

Lerman, C. (2017). No effect of commercial cognitive training on neural activity during

decision-making. Journal of Neuroscience. doi:

https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2832-16.2017


Purves, D., Augustine, G. J., & Fitzpatrick, D. (2001). Neuroscience second edition.

Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates.


Ryan, M. M., Guévremont, D., Luxamnan, C., Abraham, W. C., & Williams, J. M. (2015). Aging alters long-term potentiation-related gene networks and impairs synaptic protein

synthesis in the rate hippocampus. Neurobiology of Aging, 36(5) 1868-1880. doi:

https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neurobiolaging.2015.01.012


The Associated Press (2016, January 5). Lumosity game developer agrees to $2 million

settlement. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/06/business/lumosity

game-developer-agrees-to-2-million-settlement.html

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