You’ve all seen ads for various products designed to “keep your brain young.” The goal is to avoid or postpone dementia, or at least the regular cognitive declines that affect people as they age. This article delves into the research and discusses the different findings. Some researchers say there is promise in the science. Others say that brain training can’t reverse the effects of aging. Some others say it isn’t possible with today’s science to measure what, if any, effects the exercises have.
But scientists clash over whether that kind of skill transfer is even possible. In the past few years, they’ve engaged in a polite academic battle, lobbing opposing review papers and open letters back and forth. In 2014, 75 scientists declared that there was little evidence that brain training works. In response, 133 scientists—some affiliated with companies like Posit—returned fire, saying that “a substantial and growing body of evidence shows that certain cognitive training regimens can significantly improve cognitive function.” They cited 132 articles.
Then, a small group of psychologists started taking notice of the sweeping claims brain-training companies were making about their games. So these researchers—many of whom studied the effects of regular old commercial videogames on the brain—decided to read every paper cited by a major brain-training company, along with the 132 cited by the brain-training advocates. It took them a couple of years to review all 378 papers, but last December they finally published their results in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest. It wasn’t pretty—or brief, at 72 pages. To sum it up: “There’s no compelling evidence that practicing these games leads to real world improvements in daily tasks,” says Daniel Simons, a psychologist at the University of Illinois and the lead author of the review.