Can you train your brain?

03 April 2016

Interview with

Dr Adam Hampshire, Imperial College London

Unless you have been under a rock for the past few years you may have notice an Thinkingincreasing obsession with Apps that promise to "train your brain" with a series of different task. These Apps usually come with a price tag but are they worth shelling out for? Dr Adam Hampshire from Imperial College London joined Georgia Mills to explain what these apps aim to do...

Adam - Researchers have been working on a variety of approaches to cognitive training that are being applied in these sorts of apps.  Now one of the most popular areas of research focuses on trying to increase what psychologists refer to as working memory capacity.  This is essentially how much information a person can actively hold and process in mind.  So the idea there is that through exercises capacity could be increase, rather like if you slop more RAM into your computer.  Now there are simple and complex variants on this theme, for example, one might be asked to hold sequences of numbers, images, or spatial locations in mind across some delay.  So, I make say to you, for example, repeat the sequence 1893574.  In more complex working memory training, there may be distracting stimuli or multiple different tasks that a person has to try and perform at the same time. Now, as you practice and get good at the task, you get better at it and the difficulty level is increased.  So the idea is it's a little bit like going to the gym and upping the level.

Georgia - I've had a go at a couple of these games myself and they're quite fun but is there any evidence that they actually do anything?

Adam - Well, that's actually a very controversial question.  So a major problem is that there are many poorly validated products out there on the market.  Now the aim with that type of training is exercise and improve core working memory capacity but, of course, anyone can practice and get good at a specific task - that's just learning.  If it's going to be useful, the training really needs to lead general improvements that extend beyond the training task itself and for the most part, the products that are out there and are available haven't really been validated properly in that latter respect.  I've got a bit of a unique perspective on this question actually, because I've been involved in research that show positive and null findings.  

For example, a few years back I was involved in one study in which we tried to cognitively train around about 11,000 individuals using the type of training that was being made commercially available and we found participants got good at the train task but they showed no generalised improvements whatsoever.  However, subsequently, when we we tracked and trained older adults using the same tests, we found that there were generalised improvements and this data was published just last year.  So to my mind, that study's actually some of the best evidence to date that cognitive training can sometimes have generalised benefits.  A sort of take home message there really is that certain forms of cognitive training may help certain populations but that said, training in young healthy adults, it might just not work.  But, on the other hand, it may perhaps be possible to try and slow memory decline in older adults.  That area is really very active in research at the moment.

Georgia - So to sum up, these games for someone like me,  I might do a sudoku every single day - I'm going to get super, super good at sudoku but my memory and my maths and things like that - I'm not going to see an improvement, but you have found this kind of improvement in some select proportions of the population.  So, should be spending my time just playing a fun computer game instead?

 Adam - Well that's actually quite an interesting question in itself.  So I've run a number of studies where I've just screened large scale cohorts from the general population and, funnily enough, I found that individuals who say they do brain training, presumably with commercial packages, show no advantage whatsoever.  Individuals who say they play normal computer games tend to be a little bit better in terms of their working memory and reasoning ability.  So, of course, that's just a large scale cross section cohort study.  We can't infer cause and effect relationships from that type of data but it's quite interesting.  It all goes against the zeitgeist that brain training is good and other computer games are perhaps somehow bad.   I think it's a promising area of research at any rate.

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