The Brain: No Train no Gain?

I’ll admit it, in my earlier years I was hunched over my Nintendo DS desperately trying to draw numbers using my grit-covered stylus on Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training. Try as I might however I was regularly told that my brain was 42 years old, rather a surprise for a fresh-faced 14-year old.

I, amongst a significant percentage of the scientific community believed that games such as these would function to increase my mental capacity as long as I did it for long enough. The efficacy of these ‘Brain Training’ games has long been the subject of scientific debate, can we improve cognitive capacity by spending a few short minutes a day on computerized tests?

It is no secret that, with practice, we can improve performance in certain tasks such as memory. One of the most resounding points in support of this is a rather famous study where researchers showed that the posterior hippocampal region of London taxi drivers was significantly larger than control subjects (Maguire et al. 2000). This study showed that, by undertaking the immense task of learning ‘The Knowledge’, the brains of these individuals physically changed and morphed. In other words, practice makes perfect.

Whether this practice in one task will transfer to improved performance in another (i.e. improved memory also correlating with improved visuospatial abilities) is another question. An attempt to answer this question was made in a large study conducted with the help of BBC pop-science programme ‘Bang Goes the Theory’.

The study, published in Nature (Owen et al. 2010) indicated there was no transfer from an improved performance in the specific tasks completed to more general tests of cognition. Subjects who toiled away on online tasks focussing on an array of subjects including problem solving, short-term memory and maths amongst others fared no better than those who just used an internet search to find answers to obscure trivia questions.

So all those hours of shame with Dr Kawashima shaking his head at me with utter disdain were all for nothing? Not necessarily, the study involved an average of just 4 hours of training per individual, is that enough for any real physical changes? Also of note is the kind of person who would take up this kind of study, probably above average in terms of general intelligence thus leaving less room for improvement.

There is evidence that these kind of tests will help in the elderly (Papp, Walsh & Snyder 2009) and the young (Thorell et al. 2009) but the jury is most certainly out on whether you can learn a lot more by just playing a bit of FIFA or even, dare I say it, reading a good old fashioned book.

 

References

MAGUIRE, E. a et al. 2000. Navigation-related structural change in the hippocampi of taxi drivers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America [online]. 97(8),pp.4398–403. Available from: http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=18253&tool=pmcentrez&rendertype=abstract.

OWEN, A.M. et al. 2010. Putting brain training to the test. Nature [online]. 465(7299),pp.775–8. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature09042 [Accessed August 8, 2013].

PAPP, K. V, S.J. WALSH and P.J. SNYDER 2009. Immediate and delayed effects of cognitive interventions in healthy elderly: a review of current literature and future directions. Alzheimer’s & dementia : the journal of the Alzheimer’s Association [online]. 5(1),pp.50–60. Available from: http://www.alzheimersanddementia.com/article/S1552-5260(08)02922-1/abstract [Accessed August 12, 2013].

THORELL, L.B. et al. 2009. Training and transfer effects of executive functions in preschool children. Developmental science [online]. 12(1),pp.106–13. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19120418 [Accessed August 8, 2013].

Written by Mike Daniels

Mike Daniels

I’m currently studying for a PhD in neuroinflammation at the the University of Manchester, UK. My work is based mainly on the role of a huge protein complex called the inflammasome in diseases such as Alzheimer’s, stroke and haemorrhagic fever.
When I’m not in the lab I’m usually found up a mountain or out in the countryside somewhere and am always on the lookout for any new science outreach ideas!

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