Do Brain Training Apps Really Work?

If physical exercise makes your body stronger, mental exercise must make your brain stronger, right? Actually, it turns out the brain is a bit more complicated than that, and the two-billion dollar industry centered on cognitive training programs and apps may not have enough evidence behind it.

Overall, it is likely that cognitive benefits from brain training do exist, but they do not necessarily apply outside of the app. People with brain injuries may experience some improvements, but playing memory games may not help the average person find their car keys any faster.

The claims

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The most common benefits touted by brain-training programs include improvements to your working memory, decision-making ability, and information processing speed. Neuroscience has legitimate ways of observing and testing the concepts that these programs claim to enhance, like executive function and working memory, so if brain training has benefits, it should be observable.

Many programs advertise that they are backed by such scientific evidence, and to some degree that is true. Brain training has been a research topic of interest for quite some time, and evidence has emerged in several studies that demonstrates legitimate improvements. Lumosity, NeuroNation, BrainHQ, LearningRx, Elevate, and many other apps have sections of their websites dedicated to displaying their scientific credentials, some of which are fairly impressive. Whether all of those studies directly support their product, or whether the studies themselves are well-conducted, is another matter – and the FTC seems to agree, having handed down several fines to Lumosity and other brain-training companies for false advertising.

The evidence

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Neuroscientists have been interested in these brain-training programs since they started to become popular, and several of the platforms are actually designed by neuroscientists themselves. The body of research, however, has generally come down on the negative side.

In 2017 a group of neuroscientists tested a group of 128 healthy young adults, comparing the effects of brain-training games to either normal video games or no games at all. The brain-training group improved at the tasks they were doing in the brain-training app but scored the same as the other two groups on other measures of cognitive activity.

In 2016 another group of neuroscientists published a review of the relevant evidence and found that even including the studies most commonly cited by proponents of brain training, there was, in most cases, insufficient evidence of measurable benefits. Tasks that were closely related to the brain-training activities did tend to improve, but there was little visible evidence of skill transfer to more distantly-related tasks.

There are dozens of other studies in the same vein, all with similar findings. While there are many other studies that support the idea of brain training, and plenty of neuroscientists still endorse certain aspects of the idea, the vast majority of these studies are focused on subjects with some form of dementia, brain injury, or other existing cognitive issue. Many others are unreliable since they were not conducted independently, and some suffer from poor experimental design.

The Programs

Though there are dozens of brain-training apps, these are some of the most popular, along with what science has to say about them.

1. Lumosity

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This is the most well-known cognitive training app, which means it has been fairly well-studied. The results fit the general pattern — subjects perform much better at closely-related tasks, and some of those skills might transfer, but the effects were usually not significant enough for researchers to be certain.

2. NeuroNation

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There are no conclusive studies that specifically test NeuroNation. Their website, meanwhile, while replete with claims of partnerships, ongoing research, and scientific support based on past research, provides no guarantee that their specific brand of training will work.

3. LearningRx

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LearningRx is not a smartphone app, but rather a one-on-one brain training program. This company is actually very proactive in commissioning peer-reviewed studies on their product, but many of them come from researchers affiliated with the company. These studies tend to show strong positive results, but more independent evidence may be needed.

4. BrainHQ

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This is one of the more scientifically-substantiated programs out there – pieces of evidence in favor of it have emerged in several studies over the past few years. It’s unlikely that BrainHQ has major effects on cognition in general, but there have been several high-quality studies showing at least some effect on processing speed and memory. Their website may exaggerate the breadth and reliability of their research findings a bit, however.

5. Elevate

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The only available evidence directly supporting Elevate’s program was a study commissioned and partially conducted by the company itself. An independent researcher and research company was involved, but the study was not peer-reviewed. In the absence of any other solid evidence, it’s most likely that the Android/iOS app won’t make you a genius.

How do I get smart, then?

Good news! You don’t need to spend any money on brain apps or obsess over getting to the next level of the memory game. It might keep you a little sharper, but if all you want to do is make sure your brain is getting a decent workout and staying plastic, you should just try to learn something new, keep your body healthy, and get some exercise. If you prefer brain games to taking a math course or learning Finnish, that’s fine. All of the above brain apps are mentally stimulating, there’s no question of that, they’re just not magic bullets.

8 comments

  1. “Brain training” is just like dieting, building wealth, weight loss, physical training, etc. No matter how crazy the scheme, it will always work for some number of people and those are the testimonials used to prove that the scheme works. I’m sure we have all heard/read the punch line “4 out of 5 doctors recommend ……..” Of course we are never told if those “doctors” are medical doctors or people with doctorate degrees or are just happen to be named “Doctor”.

    Let’s not forget that the actual people who are making these claims for various products and services are marketing flacks, not the professionals in that field. If you look hard enough, you can find a “study” or “research” to support any assertion or theory. If you really are determined, you can always pay for a study to come to the conclusions you want.

  2. LearningRx is not a digital app, it is personal one on one brain training, very different from the other programs mentioned. LearningRx also has independent RCT’s besides investing in new research to meet new medical standards placed on the industry. Our research which you can view at www.gibsonresearch.org has been published in 6 major science journals in the last two years and all research done includes independent reviews and collaboration with people outside our organization. New research including pre and post MRI scans for brain injury and seniors with memory decline is also available. The great news is intense one on one training has worked for all different populations and cognitive test improvements are backed with real changes in the brain. Every day real life transfer has also been documented and is shared in several of the peer reviewed studies. You could also visit www.studentshoutouts.com for real video testimonials. I would love to speak to the author more about our training, feel free to reach me directly.

    1. Hi Tanya!

      It seems I got so caught up in reading the literature that I missed the nature of the program–it does seem to be less casually-administered than most other companies in the market. I’ll push an edit through with the disclaimer that it’s more of a course/program than an app.

      I did read through the studies and check out the authors, and having peer-reviewed positive results definitely speaks well to the program’s potential. However, I had some trouble finding studies that were done completely independent of LearningRx connections. Sorry if I missed those–I’d like to see them if they’re available!

      That said, the fact that LearningRx is going through the effort to test their programs in what seem to be pretty well-structured studies is admirable, and a step above the typical programs. I’m always fascinated by the new discoveries we’re making about the brain and cognition, and look forward to seeing the direction this debate takes. As much as we know about the subject, there’s a lot about it that’s still a black box, and I’m a big fan of anyone trying to get a better handle on it. Good luck with all that, and thanks for the response!

  3. I’m 71-years old and seem to have a brain that’s maintaining quite well. I’m working in international relations at a university in Thailand, I spend a lot of time getting into computers (not just games), and read (or listen to) a lot of audiobooks, both fiction and non-fiction. The non-fiction leans toward science, especially neuroscience, history, and linguistics.

    I’ve used Elevate for some time, not so much because I think it will improve my brain function but because it’s fun and challenging. I’ve just signed up for the trial for BrainHQ, but will take it with a grain of salt after looking at several reviews. With my other pursuits, it would be difficult to evaluate any one factor, such as an app, as having an effect on brain health.

    The bottom line is don’t overlook something that can be fun and challenging. Further benefits can be icing on the cake.

  4. The science is still out. However as someone that is developing Dementia, I can say that using an app does help me. Not a lot, but I notice some. It may just be that it is keeping my brain active. I feel sharper for a while after playing the games. And they say Use It or Lose It. So I do recommend them!

  5. I have a question about the results that people perceive vs. what science measures. People who play video games become good at games at general and their skills are transferable to other games that are different with different physics. They even have better hand/eye coordination in real life. This is the same for people who develop logic and strategy skills. These skills apply to new games that the player had never played before.

    With that said, what is it about brain training games that make the skills non-transferable? Sure, it might not raise your IQ, but some articles are saying they are useless, which seems like a stretch in the other direction.

    1. great point Dave G. I have been wondering the same.

      1. (Disclaimer: not a doctor or neuroscientist)

        That’s absolutely true about video games, and they have actually found some evidence of improved memory and spatial awareness in the short term as a result of playing games, which is pretty interesting! I’ve been looking into this more recently, just because I’m curious.

        Most of the confirmed effects I know of, though, are near-transfer physical. Strengthening hand-eye-coordination is a little more concrete and more measurable, and is closer to being near transfer than far transfer, since the skill you’re training by reacting to an enemy on screen (quick response to visual stimuli) is very similar to the skill you would need when trying to play catch or something.

        The problem with cognitive effects of games and other activities is that not only are the harder to measure by default, but they’re almost all examples of far transfer, or skill transfer between dissimilar domains. The existence of near transfer tasks, like playing video games and getting better at other video games, seems pretty intuitive, but extending that intuition to far transfer gets pretty hazy. It’s totally possible that playing chess does strengthen a certain part of our brain and lead to something neurologically measurable, but whether that then translates to improved performance at something like math or stock trading is difficult to figure out at best, and most studies so far haven’t found much evidence for it.

        For example, here’s a good recent meta-analysis on chess and music: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5724589/

        So it’s really not just brain training games where the skills are non-transferable, it’s pretty much any cognitive activity. Playing one instrument will probably help you play other instruments better, but maybe it won’t be as helpful for learning Chinese. The issue with brain-training games isn’t that they’re useless, it’s more that they rely on the idea that far transfer works, and the only skill they really build is peoples’ ability to get good at their games. If the skill you want to train is puzzle-solving, you’re good to go; it’ll give you puzzle training + a few other cognitive perk-ups.

        General brain activity is pretty scientifically proven to be a good thing (lots of studies have found correlations between high levels of brain activity leading to lower levels of dementia, for example), so brain training games are probably a fine way to keep your brain ticking. If you’re doing brain training hoping it’ll boost your general intelligence and help you pass an exam or something in the future, though, you’re better off just studying that thing. As far as we know, one type of cognitive activity is as good as another, so you might as well just directly target the skill you want.

        Actual exercise might actually be a better option for improving overall brain function and memory, though! There’s a big literature coming out these days on how especially cardiovascular activity is strongly linked to better cognition, which points again to a lot of these more general factors being mostly phyiscal, and probably marginally affected by cognitive input.

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