Natural Sciences

Are Brain Games Lame?

Scientists suggest your time is better spent on other activities

For baby boomers thinking that online “brain games” might be a kind of mental fountain of youth, top scientists have a response: Think again.

An international group of scientists has publicly panned the growing brain-game industry, saying current research doesn’t support the notion that structured computer games lead to better brain health or performance.

A statement coauthored by the UO’s Ulrich Mayr and two colleagues and released last fall said that advertising for the games plays on the fear of an aging population and that games are no substitute for commonplace activities known to benefit health and cognition.

Mayr, the UO’s Robert and Beverly Lewis Professor in Neuroscience and an expert on the flexibility—or lack thereof—of the human mind, said it’s important to keep studying how the brain learns and what people can do to boost mental agility or hold off the effects of aging. But so far, he said, the science doesn’t support the claims of many brain-game providers.

“Our main goal in this statement is to clarify the kind of empirical evidence that would justify recommending commercially available brain-training programs for improving cognitive functioning,” Mayr said. “Our conclusion is that such evidence is currently not available, despite what aggressive marketing about benefits ‘based on neuroscience’ seem to suggest.”

The statement is signed by almost 70 researchers from more than 30 universities in six nations and was based on a review of numerous previous studies. It was issued by the Stanford Center on Longevity at Stanford University and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin.

Brain games are becoming more popular, and more profitable. The industry brings in $1.3 billion a year in revenue, according to a story in The New York Times, and a business journal reports that one of the leading companies in the field has raised almost $70 million in venture funding since 2005.

But those who want to stay mentally sharp are better off following a prescription that has been shown to help: a healthy diet, regular exercise and a good dose of social activity. Time spent on brain games, Mayr and his fellow researchers say, is time that could be better spent on things that might actually help.

“Essentially, what the experts on learning, memory and cognitive aging are telling us is that to improve or maintain their own cognitive functioning, they would spend neither time nor money on brain-training programs,” Mayr said.

Other UO researchers have reached similar conclusions. A study by UO psychology professor Elliot Berkman published last year found little overall change in brain functioning from online training programs.

Of particular concern, scientists said, are claims or implications that brain games will prevent, slow or reverse Alzheimer’s disease. They said such statements are “devoid of any scientifically credible evidence.”

Also, Mayr cautioned against the use of brain-training programs in schools. The results of Mayr’s own research suggest those programs divert money and time away from effective teaching programs.

“The costs of such programs are particularly apparent when, as is already happening in some school districts in the United States, they are used at the taxpayer’s expense in schools, replacing regular, teacher-driven instruction,” he said. “The benefits we find are negligible and inconsistent and clearly do not warrant replacing valuable class time through such training programs.”

—Greg Bolt