You’re not alone if you experience periodic frustrations with the limitations of your mind. Perhaps you dream of being able to learn more quickly, multi-task more effectively, or maybe you simply wish you were better at remembering your anniversary or where you left your keys. Fortunately, idealistic neuroscientists claim to have cracked the code of how the brain rewires itself, and are developing training regimes to enhance our ability to multi-task, stave-off cognitive decline associated with aging, and remedy cognitive impairment. Better yet, they are packaging the power to strengthen our minds into entertaining games, like Lumosity or NeuroRacer, a new neuroscience-based video game developed by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (1).
Computer games are a guilty pleasure many of us indulge in when we think our co-workers aren’t looking over our shoulders, and using this pastime to make ourselves smarter feels a lot like cheating! So does this strategy actually work? Should you buy in to the brain training game, or cast your bets elsewhere?
Getting Your Head in the Game
Online brain training games like Lumosity generate personalized daily training regimes that aim to strengthen cognitive skills like attention, memory, speed, flexibility, and problem-solving. This prescribed training ingeniously involves a battery of colorful animated games, which appeal to your competitive instincts, with the apparent promise that scoring higher will lead to getting smarter. Lumosity also allows you to track your progress by taking cognitive tests, the results of which are stored in your own “Brain Profile.” Practice makes perfect, and over time, players predictably get better at the games themselves. Several peer-reviewed studies also report that using Lumosity or other brain training games results in improvements in cognitive performance.
Game makers claim to accomplish this by tapping into your brain’s intrinsic neural plasticity, which is the nervous system’s ability to adapt based on experience by remodeling the connectivity between nerve cells. Neuroscientists used to believe that plasticity and capacity for learning were considerably greater in younger animals and humans than in adults, but this adage has been gradually overturned. For instance, in one rather quirky experiment, owls wore prismatic spectacles that horizontally shifted their visual input. Incremental adjustment of the degree to which the prisms shifted visual input resulted in remodeling of neural connections in the owls’ auditory and visual sensory maps, a phenomenon that neuroscientists originally thought was only possible in juveniles (2).
Neural plasticity also underlies learning and memory in adults, and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies have shown that activation of connections between brain regions involved in processing object identity and location are correlated with improved performance on an object-location learning task (3). Brain training aims to target neural plasticity in a similar manner. By playing a game that repeatedly activates certain cognitive functions, the idea is that connections in your brain that underlie those functions may get stronger.
Calling the Bluff?
Although brain games are based on sound principles, scientists are still reluctant to embrace their effectiveness, because many of these studies were performed on small samples of patients experiencing cognitive deficits resulting from chemotherapy (4) or traumatic brain injury (5). It remains unknown whether Lumosity’s usefulness has an upper limit, and if it confers similar improvements for cognitively normal adults.
The crux of whether brain training programs meet their claims is whether training on specific tasks can actually lead to more general improvements in intelligence and every day cognitive function. Most brain games target only one aspect of cognition at a time, such as visual attention, working memory, or cognitive control. A 2008 study performed at the University of Michigan claims that adults that underwent training in a specific working memory task had improved fluid intelligence, a more general measure of cognitive ability (6). But other scientists have tried and failed to replicate these results (7), and the majority of research suggests that improvement on the type of training task Lumosity uses, which aims to target multiple aspects of cognition, doesn’t result in improved intelligence or performance on most other cognitive tests.
Leveling Up Brain Training
But don’t completely give up on the hope that neuroscientists will develop brain training tools that are effective and also fun to use. It turns out that habitually playing regular action video games, such as Halo or Call of Duty, provides generalized improvements in perception, visual attention, working memory, and spatial attention (8). This is something non-action video games and most targeted brain training programs fail to do. In order to capitalize on the benefits action video games have been found to provide for cognition, neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and the Neuroscape Lab at UCSF have created a driving simulation-based video game called NeuroRacer, which trains players to multitask more effectively. Remarkably, NeuroRacer training has been shown to be more beneficial in older adults than in younger adults, despite the assumption that older adults are thought to have the most limited capacity for neural plasticity (1). Furthermore, improvements at playing NeuroRacer are associated with improvements in working memory and sustained attention, cognitive functions not directly targeted by the training program. These findings suggest that NeuroRacer training is capable of improving cognition in a more generalized manner than other types of brain training games.
Neuroscientists don’t yet understand why action video game training is superior at inducing broader cognitive enhancements in older adults than non-action Lumosity games. Perhaps faster-paced action video games, which often simulate navigation through three-dimensional worlds, intrinsically activate and strengthen more cognitive processes at once than more basic online training games. A recent article published by Gazzaley suggests that as adults improve at the NeuroRacer game, they show more suppression of activity in the brain’s medial pre-frontal cortex. This suppression is associated with better cognitive control and less distraction during tasks. In light of the promise of video games as brain training tools, Gazzaley’s group is now developing a 3D video game, which adapts in difficulty and the types of tasks that occur in the game – all through a real time feedback loop that tracks the player’s own neural activity via EEG recordings. Researchers hope this design will allow cognitive video game training to become more personalized, and that someday cognitive video game therapies will be flexible enough that they can be prescribed to a variety of psychiatric patients.
Only a Game
As research progresses and techniques in neuroscience advance, the development of individualized brain training therapies for people with cognitive, attentional, and memory deficits are on the horizon. But for cognitively normal adults, it remains to be seen how brain games will stack up against tried and true methods of keeping the mind sharp. The limitations of brain training are fairly unsurprising, because the nature of neural plasticity is to strengthen only the connections that are activated by behaviorally-relevant experience. During development, experience changes the brain rapidly, but with age, its structure and connections stabilize. This allows critical skills, like the ability to walk and speak, to become hard-wired in your brain.
Therefore, a science-based game may be appealing, but it is not the only – or even the best – way to maximize your cognitive prowess. You already trigger plasticity in your brain every day – by socializing with friends and family, reading broadly, learning new hobbies, and by exploring your world. The beauty of your intrinsic neural plasticity is that you have the choice to strengthen your brain with the experiences that you find most fulfilling.
1. Anguera, J. A., Boccanfuso, J., Rintoul, J. L., Al-Hashimi, O., Faraji, F., Janowich, J., … Gazzaley, A. (2013). Video game training enhances cognitive control in older adults. Nature, 501(7465), 97–101. doi:10.1038/nature12486
2. Linkenhoker, B.A. and Knudsen, E.I. (2002). Incremental training increases the plasticity of the auditory space map in adult barn owls, 419(September), 293–296. doi:10.1038/nature00966.1.
3. Büchel, C. (1999). The Predictive Value of Changes in Effective Connectivity for Human Learning. Science, 283(5407), 1538–1541. doi:10.1126/science.283.5407.1538
4. Kesler, S., Hadi Hosseini, S. M., Heckler, C., Janelsins, M., Palesh, O., Mustian, K., & Morrow, G. (2013). Cognitive training for improving executive function in chemotherapy-treated breast cancer survivors. Clinical Breast Cancer, 13(4), 299–306. doi:10.1016/j.clbc.2013.02.004
5. Zickefoose, S., Hux, K., Brown, J., & Wulf, K. (2013) Let the games begin: A preliminary study using Attention Process Training-3 and Lumosity™ brain games to remediate attention deficits following traumatic brain injury. Brain Injury, 27(6), 707-716. doi: 10.3109/02699052.2013.775484
6. Jaeggi, S. M., Buschkuehl, M., Jonides, J., & Perrig, W. J. (2008). Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 105(19), 6829–33. doi:10.1073/pnas.0801268105
7. Redick, T. S., Shipstead, Z., Harrison, T. L., Hicks, K. L., Fried, D. E., Hambrick, D. Z., … Engle, R. W. (2013). No evidence of intelligence improvement after working memory training: a randomized, placebo-controlled study. Journal of Experimental Psychology. General, 142(2), 359–79. doi:10.1037/a0029082
8. Green CS, Pouget A, BavelierD (2010) Improved probabilistic inference as a general learning mechanism with action video games. Curr Biol 20:1573–1579.