Computer games and websites designed to train your brain probably won't make you any smarter, according to a study published online by the journal Nature.
The study of more than 11,000 people between the ages of 18 and 60 found that brain training helped people get better at highly specific tasks, but didn't improve memory or reasoning skills overall.
After six weeks of training, "people still weren't seeing any general effect," says Jessica Grahn, an author of the study and a researcher at the Medical Research Council's Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, England.
"There was no difference between the group that had been surfing the Internet for six weeks, and the groups that had been brain training," Grahn says.
The study is the first major attempt to see whether most brain training games and websites actually make a difference. Games like Brain Age for Nintendo have sold tens of millions of copies and generated hundreds of millions in revenue. Most are sold as entertainment and make no claims about improving mental function.
The idea of testing the games and programs came from a BBC television program, Grahn says. "They actually approached us and said, 'Would you help us develop, you know, a scientific way of testing this?' " she says.
Memory And Reasoning Didn't Improve
So Grahn and a team of researchers came up with a brain-training website open to pretty much anyone.
All of the participants initially took standard tests like those used to measure memory and IQ.
Then people were randomly assigned to one of three groups: the first would play games like those used in commercial brain training programs; a second would do brain exercises designed by the researchers; and a control group would track down facts on the Web.
People in the brain training groups had to spend 10 minutes at least three times a week doing things like pretending to be an airport security worker watching an X-ray scanner. The idea was to keep track of the number of bags inside the scanner at any given moment.
After six weeks of training, Grahn says, people had become really good at tasks like remembering how many bags are in a scanner. But their scores on measures of general memory and reasoning hadn't changed.
That's no surprise, says Matthew Shapiro, a memory researcher at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York.
"You shouldn't expect that playing with a computer and doing computerized testing is going to provide an overnight magical transformation of your abilities," he says.
Level Of Effort Could Make A Difference
But he adds that the result may have been negative because people really didn't invest that much effort in training their brains.
"I don't think any students who have to do well on exam could get by studying 10 minutes at a time every other day," Shapiro says.
More intensive training might produce a different result, he says.
But the lack of results in the study is likely to disappoint a lot of people who've bought brain training programs, says Elizabeth Zelinski of the University of Southern California, who once advised Nintendo on its brain training game.
"People who are doing this training want to get smarter," she says. "They want to remember better."
There's no sure way to do that, Zelinski says. So she says that people who want to improve their minds should pick something really challenging and rewarding, and not expect it to raise their IQ or prevent Alzheimer's disease.
"Personally, I'm learning how to play the piano," she says.