Brain-training games may be just a teaser, Penn team finds

     (Adrian Grosu / BigStock)

    (Adrian Grosu / BigStock)

    Are brain-training games effective for better cognitive performance?

    Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania say there’s no evidence these games have any effect on decision making or cognitive function, beyond what researchers call a practice effect.

    A Penn test group played executive-functioning games in the Lumosity regimen five days a week for 10 weeks. The online program consists of games claiming to improve memory, attention, flexibility, speed of processing and problem solving.

    One control group played video games, designed by undergrads, with no brain-training component; the other control group played no games at all.

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    “Contrary to our expectations, we found no evidence that commercial cognitive training affects neural activity during decision making, nor did we find effects of cognitive training on measures of executive cognitive function, above and beyond what we observed in two comparison control groups,” said researcher and professor Caryn Lerman.

    The team expected to see improvements in cognitive performance — and that this would translate into people scoring differently on measures that predict impulse control. Impulse control could have positive ramifications for people who smoke or overeat.

    To assess impulsive decision making, researchers asked the participants to choose between smaller rewards in the moment and larger rewards later.

    “The extent to which overall people have a tendency to have smaller, immediate rewards is called discounting. And that’s been associated with a variety of behaviors, including impulsive and addictive behaviors,” said Lerman.

    But people in the Lumosity group did not see a big change in how they did on these exercises after playing the games. That, said Lerman, indicates that the brain-training games did not help change decision making.

    Now her team is looking at different forms of brain stimulation to treat smokers. She’s researching whether transcranial magnetic stimulation, which has been approved by the FDA for treatment-resistant depression, could help smokers quit tobacco.

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