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23 Dec 2014

Brain training has become a bit of a buzz word the past several years, with companies releasing computer based brain training ‘games’, which are designed to boost memory and thinking skills.

With dementia predicted to affect more than 100 million people across the globe by 2050, reducing the prevalence of the disease is top priority.

Research has identified that engaging in challenging mental activities can help maintain cognition and lower the risk of dementia. As a result, a lucrative industry in brain training products has quickly developed.

Brain training games are aimed at enhancing cognitive function through repetitive practice and are marketed largely to older adults. However, a study by the University of Sydney has found only a few of the programs promoted by the $1 billion brain training industry are effective.

The study found that engaging older adults with computer-based cognitive training (brain training) can lead to improvements in memory, speed and visuospatial skills. However, it has no effect on attention or executive functions such as impulse control, planning and problem solving.

The research team examined outcomes from 51 randomised clinical trials, involving almost 5000 participants.

The researchers found that engaging in group-based training under the supervision of a trainer is effective at improving performance on a range of cognitive skills in healthy older adults. However, self-directed brain training at home had no therapeutic effect on cognition.

Lead researcher Associate Professor Michael Valenzuela said the results send a clear message to the public.

“They show that brain training carried out in a centre can improve cognition in older adults, but commercial products promoted for solo training use at home just don’t work. There are better ways to spend your time and money,” A/Professor Valenzuela said.

“We now understand how to prescribe brain training based on the highest standards of medical evidence.”

A/Professor Valenzuela said frequency of brain training was identified an as important factor in improving cognitive ability.

He said that training one to three times a week was effective, but training more neutralised any cognitive benefits.

A/Professor Valenzuela said more research was needed and the results were inconclusive on whether brain training can ward off or delay the onset of dementia.

“Modest gains are to be expected. This is not a magic bullet, and we still don’t know if this type of activity can prevent or delay dementia,” A/Professor Valenzuela said

Kirsty Waterford

Published: 23 Dec 2014