'Brain training' program proves ineffective for some applications

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Caryn Lerman, Ph.D. (University of Pennsylvania)
Caryn Lerman, Ph.D. (University of Pennsylvania)

The “brain training” program Lumosity had no effect on decision-making or cognitive functioning except for basic practice effects in a recent study, according to researchers at the University of Pennsylvania. But it may be useful for something else, one of them said.

Lumosity advertised itself as a program that could reduce or delay cognitive impairment from age or serious health conditions. Last year, the program's creators and marketers agreed to pay $2 million to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that the company deceived consumers. Although the company agreed to the settlement, it still stood by the product.

To determine whether the product actually could affect cognitive impairment, the Penn investigators studied two groups participating in their research. Each group had 64 healthy, young adults. One group used Lumosity five days a week for 30 minutes a day. The other group used online video games for five days a week for 30 minutes a day. Each group performed this routine for 10 weeks.

No changes were seen in decision-making or brain activity. Equal improvements were seen in cognitive tests for both groups, in addition to a group in which members played neither Lumosity nor the online video game. That study finding suggests that the cognitive improvements were from practice effects, according to the researchers.

Although the cognitive training by itself did not produce the desired benefits, initial findings from one of the researchers show that such training programs may be useful for something else. Caryn Lerman, Ph.D., vice dean for strategic initiatives and the John H. Glick Professor in Cancer Research in the university's Perelman School of Medicine, said she believes that cognitive exercises combined with non-invasive brain stimulation could increase self-control with smoking behavior. The researchers are conducting clinical trials to see whether this potential could apply to other risky behaviors, too, such as unhealthy eating, or to improve attention and impulse control in people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“As currently available behavioral and medical treatments for these habitual behaviors are ineffective for most people, there is a critical need to develop innovative approaches to behavior change,” Lerman said. “Changing the brain to change behavior is the approach that we are taking.”

The study was published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

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