Are You Ever Too Old to Train Your Brain?

The concept of plasticity is one that offers hope for those seeking to stem the tide in aging's effects on the brain. If your brain is "plastic," it means that it can be trained to respond more quickly, efficiently, and reliably. Neuroscientists who study aging have, for decades, sought the holy grail of promoting brain plasticity through mental exercise.

We can trace part of the appeal of the plasticity notion to the way the media lead everyone to fear that Alzheimer's disease is an inevitable consequence of aging. It's no wonder, then, that commercial enterprises would step in to capitalize on these fears, which is exactly what happened when Lumosity opened its virtual doors to sell its brain training products. For $80 a year, or $15 a month ($300 for life), its 1 million subscribers get access to the brain training games exclusively developed by Lumosity and marketed as the cure to aging's neuron-destroying properties.

Now, however, it's evident that Lumosity has overreached. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) slapped Lumosity with a $2 million fine and directed it to stop making its deceptive claims throughout all of its wide-ranging advertising venues. The action spurred an insightful analysis by New York Times reporter Paula Span. Citing a review article on brain training's effects published in the Journal of Affective Disorders (2016) co-authored by one of my former UMass doctoral students Joel Sneed (now at Queens College CUNY), she quotes Sneed's conclusion that "The field is far, far, far from demonstrating any reduction or delay in cognitive decline." Indeed, Span quotes Michelle Rusk, an FTC lawyer, as stating: "The research it [Lumosity] has done falls short because it doesn't show any real-world benefits." The key here particularly is "real world benefits." The holy grail's main requirement for these games is "far transfer," or the ability to translate improvements in game playing to tasks such as driving or performing household tasks that drain cognitive resources.

As part of my own interest in plasticity and aging, I ventured into this area in a study involving casual videogames and reaction time in older and younger adults (Stroud & Whitbourne, 2015). This followed a 2012 American Psychological Association symposium that I helped organize in which several leading brain training researchers addressed the potential benefits of videogames. None of the studies the panelists presented looked at Lumosity specifically but instead examined the benefits of a variety of free online games (such as Bejeweled Blitz) and laboratory tasks meant to simulate other popular videogames (such as Nintendo Wii).

Based on my research, and the evidence of my colleagues in the field, it seems fair to conclude that plasticity is possible, but the effects of training may not always be measurable. One huge limitation is that people who play videogames on their own, or who decide to invest in Lumosity, aren't a representative sample of the population. They're people who are interested in preserving their mental abilities and who also have become proficient at racking up the high scores on their favorite platform. The people who aren't any good give up. Without random assignment to groups, you don't have an experimental study.

The debate on brain training won't be settled until we have more rigorous, well-controlled studies. In the meantime, the good news is there's no evidence that they are harmful, and improving on your game play itself may prove rewarding and enjoyable. Feel free to blast away at those free, and sugar-free, candies. Your brain may thank you later.

Motter, J. N., Pimontel, M. A., Rindskopf, D., Devanand, D. P., Doraiswamy, P. M., & Sneed, J. R. (2016). Computerized cognitive training and functional recovery in major depressive disorder: A meta-analysis. Journal of Affective Disorders, 189184-191. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2015.09.022

Stroud, M.J. & Whitbourne, S.K. (2015). Casual Video Games as Training Tools for Attentional Processes in Everyday Life. Cyberpsychology Behavior and Social Networks, 2015 Nov;18(11):654-60. doi: 10.1089/cyber.2015.0316. Epub 2015 Oct 8.