There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for training your brain

But a personalized approach to brain training could be beneficial
Illustration: Mrzyk & Moriceau for BOLD
Illustration: Mrzyk & Moriceau for BOLD

Who wouldn’t want to sharpen their memory skills or help their children focus better at school? While brain training products can promise a lot, we still have much to learn about how, or even, if, they can help. Perhaps it’s time for a new approach.

Basic cognitive skills, like memory and attention, are crucial for educational outcomes, are predictive of job success and are particularly affected by age-related cognitive decline. Moreover, mental health disorders and brain injuries are often accompanied by deficits in memory and attention.

The possibility of improving core cognitive functions is alluring, creating a high demand for brain training programs. Numerous companies have taken advantage of a recent rise in popularity of the term “neuro”, producing an endless array of brain training products with exciting promises. In parallel, regulations have needed to be put in place to protect consumers from the many, often unfounded, claims. All of this raises the question, could memory training and these programs really benefit me or my child?

“The possibility of improving core cognitive functions is alluring, creating a high demand for brain training programs.”

Scientists disagree, even among themselves, on the extent to which using brain training programs leads to improvements on cognitive tasks that are substantially different from the tasks used during training or even to daily activities. Systematic reviews indicate that such transfer is more limited than previously thought. Nonetheless, promising long-term effects of brain training have been reported in children born prematurely, young people with ADHD, and in the classroom.

While some may disagree, I believe it is worth pursuing the question of what makes brain training effective, even if benefits are only observed in subgroups of individuals or in specific contexts. For example, while some cognitive interventions have shown to not be particularly helpful for those children who are already performing well, a recent study showed that targeted memory and inhibitory control training could help minimize the achievement gap in children who struggle at school.

Simply asking the question of whether brain training works, while ignoring individual differences, fails to provide a much-needed answer to the question: Is brain training worth my time? To move the conversation forward, we need to determine which type of training is appropriate for a certain individual (if any), and under which circumstances.

Given that there are many personal factors to consider, along with many different types of training games, one approach is to begin by collecting a large amount of data. And this is exactly what my colleagues and I are trying to accomplish in a new online study aiming to recruit 30,000 volunteers to participate in memory training.

“To move the conversation forward, we need to determine which type of training is appropriate for a certain individual (if any), and under which circumstances.”

Our  hope is that this study will help us collect the data we need to move towards a personalized approach to brain training that will optimize the way in which essential cognitive skills can be trained. While this study is targeting adults, the results could well inform future research on the potential benefits of memory training for children. Individual difference or training-related factors that are found to be important in adults may also be relevant for memory training outcomes in children, and could potentially benefit learners across the world.

A new study, funded by the US National Institute of Health, is being conducted by Anja Pahor and Susanne Jaeggi, University of California, Irvine, in collaboration with Aaron Seitz, University of California, Riverside, Director of the UC Riverside Brain Game Center for Mental Fitness and Well-being.

Anyone over the age of 18 can join this study to receive free brain training software and help generate the data required to address burning questions in the field of brain training. Details and enrollment forms can be found here: https://bgc.ucr.edu/trainmymemory

 

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