In 2014, two groups of scientists published open letters on the efficacy of brain-training interventions, or “brain games,” for improving cognition. The first letter, a consensus statement from an international group of more than 70 scientists, claimed that brain games do not provide a scientifically grounded way to improve cognitive functioning or to stave off cognitive decline. Several months later, an international group of 133 scientists and practitioners countered that the literature is replete with demonstrations of the benefits of brain training for a wide variety of cognitive and everyday activities. How could two teams of scientists examine the same literature and come to conflicting “consensus” views about the effectiveness of brain training?
In part, the disagreement might result from different standards used when evaluating the evidence. To date, the field has lacked a comprehensive review of the brain-training literature, one that examines both the quantity and the quality of the evidence according to a well-defined set of best practices. This article provides such a review, focusing exclusively on the use of cognitive tasks or games as a means to enhance performance on other tasks. We specify and justify a set of best practices for such brain-training interventions and then use those standards to evaluate all of the published peer-reviewed intervention studies cited on the websites of leading brain-training companies listed on Cognitive Training Data (www.cognitivetrainingdata.org), the site hosting the open letter from brain-training proponents. These citations presumably represent the evidence that best supports the claims of effectiveness.
Based on this examination, we find extensive evidence that brain-training interventions improve performance on the trained tasks, less evidence that such interventions improve performance on closely related tasks, and little evidence that training enhances performance on distantly related tasks or that training improves everyday cognitive performance. We also find that many of the published intervention studies had major shortcomings in design or analysis that preclude definitive conclusions about the efficacy of training, and that none of the cited studies conformed to all of the best practices we identify as essential to drawing clear conclusions about the benefits of brain training for everyday activities. We conclude with detailed recommendations for scientists, funding agencies, and policymakers that, if adopted, would lead to better evidence regarding the efficacy of brain-training interventions.(Also, see summary of this work by Kaplan)