Does Brain Training Work?

By: Dr. Pascale Michelon

Cognitive training has attracted a lot of interest in the past few years. Scientific evidence that training the brain does help boost cognitive functions are slowly being collected. A recent study reviews research looking at whether cognitive training can help adults at risk of dementia.

Who is at risk of dementia?
People with mild cognitive impairment (MCI)  are thought to be in the intermediate stage between normal cognitive functioning and dementia. Their risks of developing dementia are high: per year, 12-15% of the people with MCI are diagnosed with dementia compare to 1-2% of the general population. Individuals with MCI are thus a perfect target for cognitive training.

What is cognitive training?
In an ideal world, cognitive training should include repeated practice of tasks that target specific cognitive functions (attention, language, memory, speed of processing, etc.). The parallel can be drawn with physical training that requires repetition of movements targeting specific muscle groups in order to see improvement.
Studies that have looked at the impact of cognitive training on brain functions mostly used computerized tasks targeting specific cognitive abilities such as auditory processing. Other studies have looked at the effect of memory strategy training in which participants are taught how to use general memory techniques to enhance their performance.

Does it work?
The recent review included 10 studies (for a total of 305 participants). It was found that:

  • Cognitive training has moderate-sized effects on memory performance and global cognitive measures.
  • Computer-based cognitive training led to stronger and more generalizable benefits than memory strategy training.
  • Cognitive training also led to a reduction of depressive symptoms (in a few studies).
  • Following cognitive training (but not following memory strategy training), more training was associated with more effects on memory performance.

In sum
This review shows that cognitive exercises can be beneficial and improve memory performance in people with mild cognitive impairment. This adds to the evidence that cognitive training works, as shown in other studies with healthy individuals.
The number of high quality studies is still low but cognitive training has no harmful side-effects, in contrast to pharmacological interventions to prevent Alzheimer’s. A good reason to start exercising your brain asap!

References
Gates, N. J., Sachdev, P. S., Fiatarone Singh M. A., & Valenzuela, M. (2011). Cognitive and memory training in adults at risk of dementia: A Systematic Review. BMC Geriatr.; 11: 55.

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    I think brain games work pretty well. Games like braintraining on the DS, I don’t think so. You’ll just get better at the games instead of improving your actual cognitive skills. The creators themselves admitted that. It’s for entertainment purposes.

    But, if you take a site like http://braingymmer.com with games all based upon neuroscientific research, or another similar site, I think you can actually achieve some nice results with daily training.

    At least I feel like it’s helping for me, and I train about 15 minutes a day.

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