Brain training apps don’t really work. So why do we love them?

Jonathan Kitchen / WIRED

With an ageing population worried about cognitive decline, brain training apps have soared in popularity. Search “brain training” and you’ll find endless apps and websites promising to make you smarter, sharper and keep you mentally agile. Some also suggest they could help stave off memory loss, dementia and even Alzheimer’s disease. In the same way that we might go to the gym to exercise, a daily mental workout is said to produce physical changes in the brain. All you’ll have to do is set aside a few minutes each day to complete puzzles, memory games and word quizzes.

At least, that’s the idea. And there are a lot of people who buy it. In 2018, consumers spent an estimated $1.9 billion (£1.5bn) on brain training apps such as Lumosity, Peak and Elevate – a fourfold increase from $475 million (£383m) globally in 2012, according to SharpBrains, an independent market research firm tracking brain health technology. Of course, smartphones weren’t the original home for brain training games. Nintendo is resurrecting its fourth best-selling DS game, Brain Age, and now bringing it to the Switch in Japan this December. The idea of boosting mental fitness clearly has widespread appeal, but is that due to scientific evidence, or empty marketing promises?

The company behind Lumosity, an app offering more than 50 games that are designed to “sharpen the skills you use every day,” says it has managed to attract more than 100m users worldwide since it launched in 2007. Download figures provided by Apptopia, an analytics firm, suggest 3.8m users joined in the last nine months alone, with some opting to pay for a premium account to unlock detailed performance analytics and receive tips for better gaming strategies.

These in-app purchases earned Lumosity a total of $7.4m (£6m) in 2018. While downloads figures and revenue were lower than the previous year, Lumosity and the like may have found a clever way to maintain their market value: these apps are not listed in the games category of the Apple App or Google Play Store. “Mobile gaming brings in around $20bn (£16bn) a year. It’s a seriously tough space to compete in, but luckily for these guys, they are all listed in either the education category or the health and fitness category where the competition is still very real, but they do not have to go up against a giant company like Zynga spending millions on user acquisition,” says Adam Blacker, vice president of insights at Apptopia. As a result, brain training apps rank higher in the store and are easier to find.

In app stores, Peak points out all of its games were developed in collaboration with neuroscientists, while Elevate – which along with Peak and Lumosity is among the 20 highest-earning educational apps available for iOS and Android – promises to improve everything from maths to speaking skills that will “boost productivity, earning power and self-confidence”. Cognifit, another free app, says it provides specific brain training programmes for people who suffer from cognitive impairments such as dementia or chemo fog, a memory and concentration symptom that some patients report to experience during and after cancer treatment.

Lumosity followed a similar marketing approach in the past, but had to take it down a notch when the company was ordered to pay a $2m (£1.6m) fine in 2016 after the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the US found it deceived consumers with unfounded claims. “Lumosity preyed on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline, suggesting their games could stave off memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease,” Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection said in a statement at the time.

Co-founded by Michael Scanlon after abandoning his neuroscience PhD at Stanford University, Lumosity says its in-house research team designs and conducts studies to test the effects on the consumer’s memory, attention and processing speed – but that didn’t seem to help its case. The FTC settlement specified that with respect to “performance at school, at work, and in athletics […]; delaying age-related decline in memory or other cognitive function […]; and reducing cognitive impairment,” scientific evidence would require tests that are “randomized, adequately controlled, and blinded to the maximum extent practicable.”

Lumosity isn’t the only app that promises more than it may be able to offer. In 2014, the Stanford Center on Longevity published an open letter signed by 69 international neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists saying that there is no compelling scientific evidence that playing brain games improves cognitive abilities in everyday life, although isolated benefits could exist.

Two years later, a team of psychologists with expertise in intervention research, reviewed every scientific study cited by major brain-training companies in support of their products. As well as trawling the company websites, the reviewers also looked at published papers referenced on www.cognitivetrainingdata.org, a website representing a large group of proponents that issued a rebuttal to the Stanford statement. The review, published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, did not only question how the evidence was reported and interpreted, but the way many of the studies were designed. The criticism included small sample sizes, inadequate control groups and cherry picking research outcomes to report.

So, if the science is so flawed, why do people feel the need to train their brains with these apps and games?

Debra Abbate, a 66-year-old woman from the US, uses the Elevate app daily, usually in the mornings when she wakes up. “I find I am the sharpest then,” she says, adding that she finds it encouraging to compare her scores with that of others of her age. The quizzes and “school tests,” she says, have also helped with her memory and improved her reading speed over the last couple of years.

People don’t necessarily use brain training apps because they think it is going to reduce their chances of having dementia in the future, says Til Wykes, a professor of clinical psychology & rehabilitation at King’s College London. “I think people can see that if you practice something, you get better at it. And that’s enjoyable, it’s just playing a game. You get faster at it, it’s engaging and that’s what apps do,” she says.

At face value, brain training may seem to be improving cognitive skills, but it’s difficult to prove that learnings from quizzes and games are transferred to everyday life. An experimental study from 2014 found that older drivers that went underwent computer-based cognitive training for memory, reasoning, or speed of processing, were less likely to be involved in a car accident in the following six years. In another attempt, a group of 60 to 85-year-olds were asked to play a custom video game, NeuroRacer, over the course of a month. In the game, players had to keep a car in the middle of the road, while simultaneously keeping an eye out for a green circle on screen.

The gamers improved their attention and multitasking performance after the month – surpassing 20-somethings who played the game for the first time – and maintained their gaming skills six months after the training ended. “It [this study] was just a little shred of evidence to suggest that if you develop a type of “game” that targets a specific cognitive ability, it might help some people in some cases,” says Pete Etchells, a psychologist at Bath Spa University, who studies the behavioural effects of playing video games. Such studies, he adds, would need to be replicated with larger groups of people and involve separate tasks that assess the same, targeted cognitive ability.

“There is no evidence to show whether there’s a translation of the gains made within an app to everyday life,” says Wykes, who like Etchells wasn’t involved in the above studies. “That’s partly because we haven’t really done enough research on what it is that you need to teach people in order to be able to translate in-app gains into how people remember to take their medication or a shopping list.”

It’s understandable why someone who plays brain training games might feel they have improved over time. Nintendo’s Brain Age video game, for instance, assigns players a score based on their game performance. They might start with a “brain age” score of 60 and, after a few weeks of practising, will be told they have reduced it to 40. “For some people, there is clearly some positive reward for seeing yourself improve over time. That’s the same for an activity tracker, where you can see that your heart rate is less than it was before when you’re doing an exercise,” says Wylkes, adding that games can also offer a way to connect with other people, regardless of their location. She stresses, however, that for people wanting to improve a certain skill in everyday life, physical exercise or going for a walk would be more beneficial as this has been shown to improve brain function.

Evidence of the effects might still be a mixed bag, but that doesn’t hold back scientists from taking advantage of the rising interest in brain training. Some games are used for research – once the app provider agrees to it. “It’s quite difficult, because you need the app company’s agreement to do that and need to have access to the back end of the app,” says Wykes. “For commercial reasons, some companies are a bit reticent about taking part in those kinds of studies.”

Other games are specially designed and used for research. In 2016, the University of East Anglia and UCL launched Sea Hero Quest, a mobile game that aims to detect people at risk of Alzheimer’s. Players are shown a map of a waterway. As players navigate their way through a 3D landscape of islands and icebergs, the research team has been able to translate every 0.5 seconds of gameplay into scientific data – which in the first three years, has amassed more than 1,700 years’ worth of lab-based research from three million players globally.

“All the data about which paths you take and what you do when you go wrong is used to try and build up an idea of how people use spatial navigation abilities,” says Etchells. A problem with spatial awareness is an early and common symptom in Alzheimer’s disease. Trying to understand how spatial navigation abilities decline over the lifespan, he says, will not only allow scientists to develop new ways of diagnosing the disease, but help to build safer environments for those affected by cognitive decline.

Brain training apps might not boost your mental fitness and just make you better at playing games, but there’s nothing wrong with that. “Apps are rewarding so there is no reason not to do them, but we should not be overselling them and the app stores need to be more protective of consumers,” says Wykes. Consumers buying cornflakes in the supermarket, she says, can read the ingredients on the back of the packet and make an informed decision. “You can’t do that in the app stores so perhaps we need more information before we press download.”

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