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Published on April 21st, 2010 | by Michelle Fay Cortez


Brain Games Don’t Make You Smarter, Reduce Dementia Risk

April 21 (Bloomberg) — Playing memory, reasoning or other brain games won’t make you smarter or mentally stronger, researchers said.

A study involving 11,430 people from across the U.K. found the “training” failed to improve overall brain function better than answering general questions on the Internet. The results were the same regardless of how often the volunteers played the games, derailing the idea that more training would yield better results, said lead researcher Adrian Owen.

“We have one of the largest public health experiences ever going on in society, because millions of people are using these games,” said Owen, a neuroscientist at the Medical Research Council’s Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, England. “If people find these things fun to do, they should keep doing them. But if they are doing it to try to improve their mental function, that’s not going to happen.”

Dozens of companies sell brain-training software for baby boomers and the elderly in a bid to strengthen the mind and ward off dementia. The study results, published this week in the journal Nature, suggest users may be wasting their money, Owen said.

“There is good evidence that keeping mentally active is good for you and can stave off the effects of old age,” he said in an April 19 telephone interview from Philadelphia, where he was stranded by volcanic ash spewed in Iceland. “You might want to read a good book or learn a foreign language rather than investing a lot of time or money in a brain trainer.”

No Improvements

The training lasted six weeks. Some people only participated a handful of times, and others were “fanatics” who played the games hundreds of times, Owen said. There was no difference between the groups.

“Any reasonable theory of brain function would predict if you don’t see any difference at all at six weeks, then it’s not going to happen,” he said. “We didn’t see any effect. In fact, the control group got better than the training group in several categories.”

One group did brain games similar to the most widely used training programs now available. Owen declined to name the games. A second group played more sophisticated games designed by the researchers, who thought their own “super brain trainer” programs, focused on fluid intelligence and reasoning, might be more effective. The remainder answered general knowledge questions. The exercises took place exclusively on the Internet.

Doing the games repetitively did lead to improvements. The changes were small, however, and limited to the training. A game that asks people to remember the location of numbers on a blank page would eventually help gamers find more numbers. It would take four years of daily training to remember just one extra digit, however, and it wouldn’t improve their overall memory, the researchers said.

“It’s very specific,” Owen said. “It’s not going to improve your IQ; it won’t help you remember your shopping list. We’ve shown that simply using the Internet, which is a lot cheaper than many of these devices, can provide as much benefit as actively doing a brain trainer.”

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