Brain training apps don't seem to do much of anything

Posted by K R on

Video games are pretty fun, but most of us don't expect much more than that from entertainment media. But what if a fun video game also, conveniently, helped you succeed more in school and in life? That’s the idea behind the plethora of “brain training” apps on the market today. But just as quickly as they’ve hit the virtual shelves of iTunes and the like, the validity of their claims has been called into question. A new study out this week in the Journal of Neuroscience found that one popular app, Lumosity, doesn’t do anything for your brain—other than helping you get better at playing the game itself. While one study on a single app can’t be used to make any sweeping conclusions on the benefits (or lack thereof) of brain training games as a whole, it does highlight an important point: It’s difficult not only to create the right type of brain training exercise for a specific behavior or condition, but also to figure out if that training actually works. The logic behind these brain training apps is based on the idea that certain brain circuits are involved in a type of cognitive performance called delayed discounting, which is your preference for choosing immediate, smaller rewards versus waiting for a bigger reward, as well as one called risk sensitivity—whether you choose reliable or risky rewards. Scientists have found that choosing immediate and risky rewards is associated with unhealthy behavior like smoking, drinking, eating poorly, and generally being more prone to addiction. Apps like Lumosity work these same brain circuits—supposedly strengthening them—to help people focus more and avoid rash, unhealthy decisions. But here’s the problem: There’s still a lot we don’t know about neuroscience and brain circuitry. The thing about Lumosity (and other brain training games and apps), says Joaquin Anguera, an assistant professor of neurology at the University of San Francisco School of Medicine who was not involved in the study, is that there are a number of different modules and games to choose from—and all of them work different neural networks in the brain. It could be that one app on the market does help improve one certain type of brain behavior, but we just haven’t pinned those results down yet. Scientists still need to do more research to figure out which circuits are actually associated with different behaviors, and it will take even more research to figure out whether certain exercises can help. In this specific study, the researchers split up a group of 128 young adults into two sets...

Read More: Popular Science


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