Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Scientific evidence does not support anti-aging claims of the brain game industry.

MindBlog has done numerous posts on brain training games as possible antidotes to cognitive decline in the elderly. (I've played with both Merzenich's BrainHQ exercises and Luminosity exercises). The Stanford Center for Longevity and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development have together just issued a joint statement skeptical about the effectiveness of "brain game" products such as these (the full statement, with references, is here), signed by 69 prominent psychologists and cognitive scientists from around the world,  even including Adam Gazzaley at UCSF, who has a financial interest in the brain gaming industry (and whose PT Barnum approach to publicizing his work I have criticized - see also a a recent NY Times piece on Gazzaley "Can Video Games Fend Off Mental Decline?"). Daniel Schacter at Harvard is among the other prominent signatories.

I pass on their closing recommendations and summary:
Much more research needs to be done before we understand whether and what types of challenges and engagements benefit cognitive functioning in everyday life. In the absence of clear evidence, the recommendation of the group, based largely on correlational findings, is that individuals lead physically active, intellectually challenging, and socially engaged lives, in ways that work for them. Before investing time and money on brain games, consider what economists call opportunity costs: If an hour spent doing solo software drills is an hour not spent hiking, learning Italian, making a new recipe, or playing with your grandchildren, it may not be worth it. But if it replaces time spent in a sedentary state, like watching television, the choice may make more sense for you.
Physical exercise is a moderately effective way to improve general health, including brain fitness. Scientists have found that regular aerobic exercise increases blood flow to the brain, and helps to support formation of new neural and vascular connections. Physical exercise has been shown to improve attention, reasoning, and components of memory. All said, one can expect small but noticeable gains in cognitive performance, or attenuation of loss, from taking up aerobic exercise training.
A single study, conducted by researchers with financial interests in the product, or one quote from a scientist advocating the product, is not enough to assume that a game has been rigorously examined. Findings need to be replicated at multiple sites, based on studies conducted by independent researchers who are funded by independent sources. Moreover, participants of training programs should show evidence of significant advantage over a comparison group that does not receive the treatment but is otherwise treated exactly the same as the trained group.
No studies have demonstrated that playing brain games cures or prevents Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.
Do not expect that cognitively challenging activities will work like one-shot treatments or vaccines; there is little evidence that you can do something once (or even for a concentrated period) and be inoculated against the effects of aging in an enduring way. In all likelihood, gains won’t last long after you stop the challenge.
In summary: We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do. The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the best evidence to date, which is that cognitive health in old age reflects the long-term effects of healthy, engaged lifestyles. In the judgment of the signatories, exaggerated and misleading claims exploit the anxiety of older adults about impending cognitive decline. We encourage continued careful research and validation in this field.

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