Is Brain Training for Kids Scientifically Valid?

Is Brain Training for Kids Scientifically Valid?
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In just 13 years, brain training has sprouted from a fledgling industry to a behemoth projected to be worth as much as $7.5 billion in 2020. Companies like Lumosity, LearningRx, and Cogmed lead the pack, with more than 100 million subscribers between them. Customers pay to play games and participate in programs designed to enhance their cognitive skills for the long term.

Children and adolescents are frequently targeted by these companies. The notion that harmless and fun video games can boost kids' memory, problem-solving skills, and focus is a powerful pitch to parents. Companies claim that these benefits are verified by "neuroscience" (ever a captivating buzzword), but how do they really stack up within the scientific literature? A trio of Spanish psychologists recently dove in to find out. Their findings are published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

Reviewing all published studies with "empirical data on the use of brain training for children or adolescents" from "commercially available training applications," the researchers found a general lack of scientific rigor.

Of the reviewed work, "40 studies (68.2%) were not randomized and controlled; for those randomized, only 9 studies (12.9%) were double-blind, and only 13 studies (18.6%) included active controls in their trials," the researchers reported.

Despite the haphazard research landscape, which often produces more positive results, the evidence for lasting cognitive benefits from brain training for children was underwhelming. The majority of independent studies found only "near transfer" effects, meaning that training tended only to produce better performance at tasks similar to the games that subjects played. Just 15.7% of the published studies showed evidence for long-term "far transfer" effects, benefits that actually impact a user's daily life.

"Based on our results, Brain Training Programs as commercially available products are not as effective as first expected or as they promise in their advertisements," the reviewers summarized.

An image of one of Lumosity's brain training games.

But though most children and adolescents probably won't see real-world benefits from brain training, a small, but notable amount of quality research does indicate that children with learning disabilities or behavioral problems like ADHD or autism can take away tangible boosts to focus and reasoning, which can lead to improved academic performance. Specifically, a program called Cogmed was supported by the largest amount of research, the reviewers found.

In the past few years, the Federal Trade Commission cracked down on the brain training companies Lumosity and LearningRx for making unwarranted claims not backed by scientific evidence. At least for now, it does seem that most brain training purveyors have toned down their flowery rhetoric, but brain training still carries an alluring aura of self-improvement akin to that of supplements and alternative medicine. It remains to be seen whether or not the unflattering findings on brain training's efficacy will actually cause that aura to diminish.

Source: Rossignoli-Palomeque T, Perez-Hernandez E and González-Marqués J (2018) Brain Training in Children and Adolescents: Is It Scientifically Valid? Front. Psychol. 9:565. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00565

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