Interesting read (and study): At last, a gold-standard study on brain training

This is a very interesting study and analysis of this study on something that has been a theme for quite a while: is it possible to train our brain via the computer. While there have been a lot of claims about this, in our book we describe that these claims have little to no substance. But this study is different.

First the abstract of the study by Corbett and many, many others:

Cognitive training (CT) offers a potential approach for dementia prevention and maintenance of cognitive function in older adults. Online delivery provides a cost-effective means of implementing CT compared with in-person interventions, with the potential of providing an effective public health intervention for risk reduction.

A double-blind 6-month online randomized controlled trial in adults older than 50 randomized to General CT, Reasoning CT, or control. The primary outcome was instrumental activities of daily living (IADL) in adults older than 60. Secondary outcomes were reasoning, verbal short-term memory, spatial working memory, verbal learning (VL), and digit vigilance in adults older than 50. Secondary analyses were performed with a group defined as showing age-associated impairment in reasoning according to baseline scores in this domain.

A total of 2912 adults older than 60 (6742 > 50) participated. General and reasoning packages conferred benefit to IADL (P = .008, P = .011), reasoning (P < 0.0001, P < .0001), and VL (P = .007, P = .008) at 6 months. Benefit in reasoning was evident from 6 weeks. Other benefits developed over 6 months. Analysis of participants with age-associated impairment also showed the same pattern of benefit. A clear dose-response effect was seen.

Online CT confers significant benefit to cognition and function in older adults, with benefit favoring the Reasoning package. Scale of benefit is comparable with in-person training, indicating its potential as a public health intervention. Impact on the group with age-associated impairment indicates a particular sensitivity to this at-risk group, which merits further investigation.

And than there is this great analysis of this study by Tom Stafford who explains why this study is a milestone and done very, very well but he also warns not to jump to conclusions:

For now, the implications of the current state of brain training research are:

Don’t pay money for any “brain training” programme. There isn’t any evidence that commercially available exercises have any benefit over the kinds of tasks and problems you can access for free.

Do exercise. Your brain is a machine that runs on blood, and it is never too late to improve the blood supply to the brain through increased physical activity. How long have you been on the computer? Could it be time for a brisk walk round the garden or to the shops? (Younger people, take note, exercise in youth benefits mental function in older age)

A key feature of this study was that the exercises in the treatment group got progressively more difficult as the participants practised. The real benefit may not be from these exercises as such, but from continually facing new mental challenges. So, whatever your hobbies, perhaps – just perhaps – make sure you are learning something new as well as enjoying whatever you already know.


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