How To Train Your Brain (Part II)

Can playing a game improve your cognitive abilities or maintain them as you age? We learned from Erica Seigneur’s post on August 15 that evidence in the neuroscience literature is inconclusive. But a new paper in the September 5 issue of Nature claims to have a breakthrough (1). Dr. Joaquin Anguera and colleagues at UCSF trained older adults to multi-task with a custom-made video game called NeuroRacer and declared big improvements not just in multi-tasking but also in working memory and sustained attention. How are their experiments different from those that reported no effect of brain-training games? Anguera and colleagues focused narrowly on improving multi-tasking in older adults to or above the level of multi-tasking ability found in younger adults. They designed NeuroRacer to get participants to simultaneously drive a virtual car and respond to signs flashing on the computer screen. Both the driving and the responding to signs had many levels of difficulty. For each participant, the authors picked a difficulty level of driving and of responding that the participant could do with 80% accuracy. They defined multi-tasking ability as the difference in accuracy between only responding to signs and responding to signs while driving, with smaller difference indicating greater ability. After these preparations, they measured baseline multi-tasking ability for participants aged 20 to 79 and found a linear decline with age. Then they trained a different group of participants aged 60 to 85 with NeuroRacer for one hour three times a week for four weeks, adapting the difficulty levels as participants got better at the game. An active control group, also aged 60 to 85, played a version of NeuroRacer that would alternate between driving and responding to signs without multi-tasking, but was counseled to believe that they were also training in multi-tasking. A passive control group from the same age group did not play NeuroRacer. At the end of 4 weeks of training, both the experimental and the active control groups could multi-task better than passive controls, and the experimental group was better than active controls. About 6 months after training, the experimental group had lost some multi-tasking ability but was still better than not only both control groups but also a group of 20-year-olds that played NeuroRacer for the first time. On the basis of these results, Anguera and colleagues declared success in using NeuroRacer to improve multi-tasking in older adults.

But did the participants actually improve their cognitive abilities or just got really good at NeuroRacer? To address that, Anguera and colleagues put the participants they trained through more tests. They stuck electrodes to their scalps and measured electrical signals from the brain, called theta waves, that have been correlated with multi-tasking, sustained attention, working memory, and general cognitive control, which I interpret to mean healthy brain. They asked participants to complete another video-game-based test called the Test of Variables of Attention (TOVA), which is commonly used to diagnose ADHD (2). From the results, they declared improved sustained attention. Though they also claimed improvements in working memory, they offered only the briefest of descriptions for their method of testing it in Supplementary Figure 12, and it wasn’t sufficient for me to judge its merits. However, their measurements of theta waves are also supposed to support this claim. In all, Anguera and colleagues went to great lengths to demonstrate general cognitive benefit from NeuroRacer to older adults.

But Anguera and colleagues themselves cite a Nature paper from 2010 by Dr. Adrian M. Owen and others that tested many more participants with brain-training games similar to commercially available ones and reported no evidence of general cognitive benefit from their use. What’s going on here? Anguera and colleagues point out that, unlike Owen and co-workers who tested people from the general population, they trained members of a specific sub-population, older adults, in something where they had a measurable impairment, i.e. multi-tasking. They also stressed that because NeuroRacer adapts its difficulty to the abilities of each user, it provides a consistent challenge and more effective training. Anguera’s supervisor Dr. Adam Gazzaley co-founded Akili Interactive Labs to commercialize the concept of NeuroRacer, so perhaps in a few years we will be able to test it out for ourselves (4). In the meantime, let’s set aside the question of benefit from video games and just appreciate how much fun they are.


  1. Anguera J A et al. (2013). “Video game training enhances cognitive control in older adults.” Nature. 501:97-101. Paywall.
  2. Owen A M et al. (2010). “Putting brain training to the test.” Nature. 465:775–778.