The Brain Age Series: Claims and Effectiveness

on Sunday, May 20, 2012
I've always been a bit annoyed by games like Nintendo's Brain Age series (also known as the Brain Training series in some regions) for the DS. The marketing for these products is very clear in its implications: playing these games will improve your mental skills and capacity. And yet, to support such a sweeping claim would require a great deal of empirical study that Nintendo has not undertaken. Indeed, Nintendo, despite the implications of their marketing, carefully distances themselves from explicit claims of effectiveness. Nintendo's head of US marketing, when pushed on the matter, affirms that Nintendo is simply "in the entertainment business." This dissonance between marketing, official position, and public perception naturally raises the question of what actual utility Brain Age does or does not offer. I'll try to summarize here what research is available on the matter.

Perhaps it's best to start with the origins of the games. Who is that goofy face that gives you advice on how to play? As one could quickly infer from the name plastered all over the titles, Brain Age was inspired by the work of Tohoku University neuroscience professor Dr Ryuta Kawashima; the game draws heavily from his book, Train Your Brain: 60 Days to a Better Brain. The book is written as a fun self-help guide, and it directly states that users will be able to prevent mental deterioration and will have "more neurons and neural connections." To support these claims, the book simply states that the exercises derive from the "latest research" from Kawashima's "neuroscience lab." Though two simple, qualitative sketches of experiments are given, there are no citations of the actual research. As a result, we'll have to go elsewhere to find out what such exercises really do.

Before we focus on the Brain Age software itself, let's look at more general results. A number of studies have looked at the effects of cognitive stimulation, often in the form of computer-based tasks, on the impact of dementia and/or Alzheimer's in elderly people. For example, Spector et al. (2003) engaged a group of people suffering from dementia with a form of cognitive stimulation therapy consisting of exercises not dissimilar to the Brain Age games. They found improvements in mental state and quality of life due to the exercises that were comparable to those induced by drugs for dementia. Similarly, Belleville et al (2006) looked at a sample of 47 elderly, many with mild cognitive impairment, were treated with "tasks of episodic memory" such as list-recall and association tasks. They found a statistically significant improvement in treated groups over the control group. Other groups have focused directly on the preventative effects of such tasks with respect to Alzheimer's disease. Raúl de la Fuente-Fernández (2006) found that small changes in cognitive activity can result in large reductions in the rate of Alzheimer's in the population studied. It has also been suggested that computer-based tasks can lead to improvements in unrelated tasks such as driving in the elderly. All of these studies, along with many others, suggest that tasks that require cognitive activity, like, presumably, the Brain Age games, can help fend off mental decline as one ages.

Other research has focused on the use of games in people of a variety of ages. Even Kawashima's own research group is involved in an ongoing, but incomplete, study of the use of the game GO as an intervention tool with elementary students. The evidence for positive impact in cognitive ability due to brain training games at other ages is less clear, however. For example, Owen et al. (2010) conducted a six week online study of 11430 participants. They were subjected to a variety of tasks similar to those found in commercially available brain training software.  Though the participants were seen to improve on the tasks that they were performing in their training, the study found no significant effect on other tasks, even if they were cognitively similar to the training tasks. This study casts extreme doubt on the argument that tasks like those provided by Brain Age can improve the mental skills of healthy adults.

But what about Brain Age specifically? Learning and Teaching Scotland conducted a study of 634 Scottish elementary students from 32 schools who used Brain Age daily. They found moderate increases in learning due to the game. Unfortunately, this study does not appear to be peer reviewed. Additionally, the tests used to measure learning gains were only simple arithmetic tests nearly identical to parts of the Brain Age game; a more general test was not used. Further, it is an observational study without a proper control group. As such, these results must be viewed skeptically. Indeed, work by Alain Lieury reports on a study of ten year olds who used Brain Age. He found that students who spent their time on Brain Age performed 17 percent worse than a control group on a battery of tests. Students who used their time on pen-and-paper exercises rather than Brain Age performed 33 percent better than the control group. Lieury extrapolates to adults, suggesting that "if it doesn't work on children, it won't work on adults." Unfortunately, this study, too, does not appear to be available in peer-reviewed form, and all of its details are not available. The sample size is also somewhat small. From what information is available, however, it seems to successfully refute the Scottish study. Kawashima himself has also been involved with studies that investigate Brain Age's effectiveness. One such study compared the use of Brain Age to Tetris in a small sample of 28 healthy elderly persons. Though the study finds a moderate improvement in certain tasks after training with Brain Age, it finds comparable improvements due to Tetris use. In other tasks, however, both groups do not improve and sometimes even do worse.

The net implications of all of these studies seem fairly clear, at least in a qualitative sense. Cognitive activity seems to help stave off mental decline and disease that comes with old age. In healthy populations, whether adult or juvenile, the effects are less clear. Cognitive training may have very modest effects, but no study has conclusively demonstrated a significant one. Brain Age in particular, however, does not seem particularly good at causing any improvements in any population when compared to any other activity. In school children, it may or may not have a positive impact, but, in any case, it does not perform significantly better than any other training activity, including traditional ones. In the elderly, a larger positive benefit is seen, but, again, it is no better than other games, such as Tetris. In short, the literature suggests that there is no compelling reason to play Brain Age over any other game with a goal of improving mental capabilities. Brain Age should be regarded as an entertainment game like any other, unless new evidence comes to light suggesting otherwise. Nintendo's marketing for the game, then, is misleading at best and outright incorrect at worst.

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