Brain Training and Memory: What To Know

Brain training designed to sharpen thinking skills may help—but in certain conditions.

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You've probably seen ads for computer games designed to make you smarter and keep you feeling mentally young. But maybe you've also heard that their benefits have been overstated, if not disproved entirely.

So what's the deal with these brain training games? Are they worth the time and money?

Well, a review of research found they can improve memory and mood in older adults who've begun to experience a decline in their mental abilities.

The caveat: Most of the research involved supervised group training—which means the games may not be as helpful to folks playing them at home. The review also showed that brain training, even in a group setting, didn't do any good for people already diagnosed with dementia.

Here's more about this type of training and how it might affect memory.

What Is Brain Training?

The idea behind brain training is to enhance memory by practicing mentally challenging exercises, such as ones designed to look and feel like video games.

More About Brain Training

Cognitive training, or brain training, is not limited to only video games. Other interventions can include music learning or everyday activities as well as playing board games or dancing. Additionally, programs geared toward cognitive training also focus on thinking skills like attention, working memory, or executive functions.

In previous meta-analyses, researchers have found that brain training can be beneficial to groups such as people with depression and people with Parkinson's disease.

Still, some software programs and websites have been marketed for the purposes of enhancing memory and thinking. And some have faced criticism or legal action for overstating their benefits.

One potential reason why? Brain training doesn't always appear to go beyond doing tasks that people are trained to do in the moment.

For example, researchers of a Human Brain Mapping study compared three groups of individuals who were engaged in cognitive training or not. The participants in groups with training were given working-memory tasks to complete with new or familiar nature movies.

Although the training groups showed improvement with the tasks and reaction times, there were no new effects or transfer of skills regarding:

  • Fluid intelligence (reasoning skills)
  • Verbal memory (ability to recall spoken information)
  • Digit-span (number recall skills)
  • Executive functions (planning and multitasking skills)

In other words, cognitive benefits as a result of brain training have been found to only be helpful for the task at hand—not for similar tasks that may occur in or translate to real-life situations.

Other concerns have arisen in research too. Some studies have suggested that any mental boost from such programs could be due to a placebo effect. And a Trends in Cognitive Sciences review said that research has consistently found there to be little benefit for general cognition with brain training.

Other Insights Into Brain Training

Researchers from the University of Sydney's Brain and Mind Centre combined data into one large pool, known as a meta-analysis. The meta-analysis included previously published randomized clinical trials, with information from nearly 700 participants and spanning more than 20 years.

Of those studies, 17 included adults with mild cognitive impairment (MCI)—a decline in thinking and memory that has not yet affected daily living skills—and 12 included adults with full-blown dementia. MCI has at least a 10 percent chance of progressing to dementia within a year.

When the researchers combined and analyzed data only involving people with MCI, they found that brain training led to improvements in:

  • Global cognition
  • Memory
  • Learning and attention
  • Mood
  • Self-perceived quality of life

However, when they added in data from the 12 studies on people with dementia, that association disappeared.

Lead author Amit Lampit, PhD, a research fellow in the School of Psychology, said that brain training can play an important role in helping to reduce early symptoms of memory loss.

"Our research shows that brain training can maintain or even improve cognitive skills among older people at very high risk of cognitive decline," said Lampit in a press release, "and it's an inexpensive and safe treatment."

But, said Lampit, most large trials have been done in supervised settings—and it's unknown whether online programs used at home use would have the same effects.

In fact, the researchers did compare computerized brain training in the two types of settings in an earlier meta-analysis from 2014. The results weren't promising: They found that doing these exercises in a group and with a trainer provided significant benefits, but doing so at home did not.

The Possible Benefit of Supervised Brain Training

Though research is mixed about brain training in general, supervised brain training might be more helpful than at-home brain training.

"Think of it this way: For most people, joining a gym or aerobic class are more likely to help them achieve the results they want than buying home fitness equipment," Lampit told Health. "Similarly, doing cognitive training in a supervised format will help people to persevere with their training program, do the exercises that fit them best, and problem-solve on the fly."

Implementing this type of training could possibly lead to people gaining the benefits found in research. Rather than recommend at-home brain training at the time, Lampit said he wanted to see more community centers and clinicians establish group facilities similar to those with evidence already behind them.

Michael Valenzuela, PhD, leader of the Regenerative Neuroscience Group at the Brain and Mind Centre, said that upcoming technology may also make effective brain training accessible to more people.

"The great challenges in this area are maintaining training gains over the long term and moving this treatment out of the clinic and into people's homes," said Valenzuela in a press release. "This is exactly what we are working on right now."

More Considerations About Brain Training and Memory

While there's evidence that memory exercises can improve memory-related tasks, Lampit cautioned that it's still hard to tell what that means for noticeable, real-life symptoms.

"Whether training gains transfer into an everyday function is difficult to know," said Lampit. "As recently noted by FDA officials, we simply do not have outcome measures that are objective and sensitive enough to detect a functional change in people who do not have dementia."

Additionally, one study indicated that there are several outcome tools available to use in research trials for dementia and MCI. The authors also mentioned that performance-based assessments using technology and sensitive to any changes in function are still in the works.

And there's still no evidence that brain training can actually prevent dementia. "This will require very large trials with long follow-ups and training periods, and the results of our meta-analysis provide the necessary evidence to motivate such studies," said Lampit.

But looking at the benefits of brain training that are available can set the stage for future research on the intervention. "Taken together, these wide-ranging analyses have provided the necessary evidence to pursue clinical implementation of brain training in the aged-care sector," said Lampit, "while continuing research aimed at improving training effectiveness."

A Quick Review

Brain training consists of activities geared toward helping improve memory and how people think.

The research about brain training and how it affects memory is mixed. Some studies say that it is helpful for some groups, while other studies concluded that it has no benefit for individuals.

Still, because of some of the benefits that exist, more research can be done to determine the helpfulness of brain training for memory issues.

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