The past decade has seen a rise in popularity of brain-training games that claim to improve a range of mental skills. However, a recent study that measured brain activity, decision-making, and cognitive ability found that playing commercial brain games offered no benefits above those of playing online video games.
In a report on the research that is published in The Journal of Neuroscience, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia conclude that commercial brain games appear to have no effect on cognitive function and decision-making beyond the tasks included in the game.
The study was co-led by Joseph Kable, an associate professor of psychology in the School of Arts & Sciences, and Caryn Lerman, a professor in cancer research and the vice dean for Strategic Initiatives in the Perelman School of Medicine.
The researchers were looking for ways to help people improve their ability to make decisions that do not lead to unhealthy habits such as smoking and overeating.
Because of the claims made by commercial brain-training games, the team wondered if playing them might improve decision-making.
'Cognitive training deserves a rigorous test'
The researchers note that people with stronger cognitive ability tend to be less impulsive when making decisions that involve a choice between an immediate, small reward and a delayed, larger reward.
Also, previous work led by Prof. Lerman had established that engaging brain regions that are important for self-control, or executive function, can bias choices away from those that bring immediate reward, such as smoking.
Brain-training games, such as the one used in the study, include tasks that likely engage the same brain structures - namely, the dorsolateral prefrontal area of the brain - as those that are active in these types of executive function decisions.
However, the researchers explain that previous studies of commercial brain-training games - which they refer to as "cognitive training" games - have yielded mixed conclusions about whether the improvements that players achieve from practicing the games "transfer beyond trained tasks."
They therefore decided to carry out a first-of-its-kind randomized controlled trial to compare the effects on brain activity and decision-making of playing a commercial cognitive training game, with those of playing standard online video games.
Prof. Kable says that they thought that "cognitive training deserved a real, rigorous, full-scale test."
Trial assessed two types of decision-making
For the trial, they recruited 128 healthy young adults (71 men and 57 women) and randomly assigned them to two groups of equal size. One group played an online executive function game for 30 minutes per day on 5 days each week, for 10 weeks.
The participants in the other group, which the researchers used as a control group, followed the same schedule of game playing except that instead of playing the brain-training game, they played online video games.
Both before and after the training period, all participants were assessed while they completed a set of validated decision-making tasks. They also underwent functional MRI brain scans as they completed the tasks.
The researchers assessed two types of decision-making: "delay discounting," in which participants choose between small rewards now and larger rewards in the future, and "risk sensitivity," in which the choices are between large, risky rewards and smaller, certain rewards.
In addition to these specific decision-making tasks, the participants also completed a set of general cognitive ability tests before and after the training period.
Improvement confined to practiced tasks
When they compared the before and after results of the two groups, the researchers found "no evidence" to support the idea that playing brain-training games produces better results than playing video games "with respect to changes in decision-making behavior or brain response."
They did, however, find that participants in the cognitive brain-training group improved their performance on the specific tasks in the game.
When they analyzed the results of the general cognitive ability tests, the team found that both groups showed improvement over the 10 weeks of training, but to the same extent.
"Moreover," note the authors, "the degree of improvement was comparable to that observed in individuals who were reassessed without any training whatsoever."
They conclude that neither brain-training games nor video games are likely to result in improved decision-making that applies outside of the problems that are specific to the games practiced.
However, further work in Prof. Lerman's laboratory suggests that there may be some benefit in combining cognitive training with non-invasive brain stimulation to improve self-control in making decisions about smoking.
The team has already embarked on clinical trials to test whether this combination has an effect on attention and impulse control in people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and on decisions relating to unhealthy eating.
"As currently available behavioral and medical treatments for these habitual behaviors are ineffective for most people, there is a critical need to develop innovative approaches to behavior change. Changing the brain to change behavior is the approach that we are taking."
Prof. Caryn Lerman