'Brain training' program doesn't improve self control

(Reuters Health) - Brain training programs may make people better at using brain training programs, but they don’t improve decision-making skills in real-world tasks like making healthy choices, a new study concludes.

Young adults recruited to use a commercial brain-training program for 10 weeks got better at that program’s specific tasks, but on a standard test of so-called executive function - the brain’s ability to regulate itself - they improved just as much as peers who had played video games for 10 weeks.

People should be skeptical about what benefits they can gain from brain training programs, said senior author Caryn Lerman, of the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine in Philadelphia.

“They may need to manage those expectations a little better,” she told Reuters Health.

“Our laboratory at Penn has been focused for many years on understanding why it is so hard for people to change habits and behaviors that they know may increase their risk for certain diseases,” Lerman said.

The lab’s research suggests there are certain factors that make it easier for some people to quit smoking than for others, for example. The new study aimed to examine whether brain training could modify factors like executive function to change how people react in certain situations and ultimately make healthier choices.

The researchers recruited 128 participants between 18 and 35 years old who were split into two groups. While one group spent 10 weeks using the brain-training program Lumosity five days a week for 30 minutes each day, the comparison group spent the same amount of time playing online video games chosen specifically not to target executive function or to increase the level of challenge players faced.

Before the study started and after 10 weeks of online training or gaming, all participants underwent a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scan to measure brain activity while they performed assorted decision-making tasks.

The tasks tested whether the individual would choose smaller immediate rewards or larger rewards later, and smaller rewards that are guaranteed versus larger, less certain rewards.

The participants’ overall cognitive activity was also measured with tests examining attention, memory and other abilities.

After 10 weeks, there were no differences seen in the brain activity scans between the brain-training and video-game groups, the researchers report in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Both groups also experienced similar improvements on the standard cognitive and decision-making tests over the course of the study.

In a statement to Reuters Health, a spokesperson for Lumosity said the research’s scope was narrow.

“There remain many open questions in the field - how, why, and in what circumstances cognitive training is efficacious - and so painting in such broad strokes potentially undermines this important, ongoing research area,” wrote Sara Colvin in an email. “We remain committed to supporting quality research, regardless of the outcome: every study can be built on, and they all move us closer to answering open questions - in turn, improving the quality of products available.”

Colvin also said the company provides researchers - including those who conducted the new study - access to Lumosity and some data through its research network known as the Human Cognition Project.

Lerman also cautioned that the new study can’t say whether brain training would lead to differences for older people since her team focused on young adults.

“If it was effective we’d expect to see it in younger participants as well,” she noted.

SOURCE: Journal of Neuroscience, online July 10, 2017.