Brain Training: Software-Based Dementia Intervention or Clicky Garbage?

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Photo: Photo: Jakub Krechowicz/Getty Images

Training your brain sure sounds great. It’s like a personal trainer for me!, your brain might say to you. But here’s the thing: You use your brain in everything you do, so products that purport to specifically train it may be what is scientifically called “neurobullshit,” the kind of thing that might hype a best-selling game but has little empirical rigor. Over the weekend, the brain-train blame game reached a familiar level of flimflammery. I first saw the headline from the Boston Globe’s science-journalism startup STAT: “Play on! In a first, brain training cuts risk of dementia 10 years later.” Picked up by the Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, and elsewhere, the story is about how playing a computer game that’s intended to train your speed of mental processing reduces the risk of dementia — one group of seniors who did a full complement of hour-long sessions had an 8.2 percent chance of developing dementia after ten years, while the control group had a 14 percent chance. One aging expert not involved in the study told STAT that it was “highly, highly promising,” while another said that while “[i]t’s hard to understand how such a brief intervention could have a long-lasting impact … you have to respect the data.”

While it might seem cut-and-dried, this dementia research reveals the messiness of how science is done and how it is communicated. It’s easy to forget that Science isn’t the Voice of God but rather a shared, necessarily falsifiable human endeavor done by humans, and one that requires lots of technical rigor to be done responsibly. “Brain training,” that insistent piece of marketing copy, is a flashpoint within it all. And it’s projected to be a $6 billion industry in the next couple years.

In 2014, 75 researchers signed a consensus statement condemning brain trainers, contending that they “exploit the anxiety of older adults” with exaggerated claims while detracting from the “best evidence to date” about what keeps people healthy as they grow older — namely the long-term effects of living a healthy, engaged life. Indeed, just this year, the Federal Trade Commission slapped Lumosity with a $2 million fine for false advertising. “Lumosity preyed on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline, suggesting their games could stave off memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease,” FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection director Jessica Rich said in a statement. “But Lumosity simply did not have the science to back up its ads.” Science of Us declared that “‘Brain Training’ Is Not Real.”

This brings us to the present research, which was presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Toronto. As Hilda Bastian argues at her blog Absolutely Maybe, there’s a lot to be cautious about it. For one, it was presented at a conference, rather than published in peer-reviewed journal. Bastian reports that 40 percent of cardiology articles have a major discrepancy between when they’re presented and when they’re published, 63 percent within sports medicine, and 96 percent (!) within plastic surgery. Then, there’s the fact that these findings come from “secondary analysis,” meaning that measures and hypotheses were added after the initial trial was set up. Then, you have to consider the logical disconnect between playing a singularly attention-drilling game and a generalized result like staving off dementia a full decade later. And also, as the 75 psychologists, neuroscientists, and cognitive scientists that co-signed that consensus statement argued, a single study “is not enough to assume that a game has been rigorously examined.” But one of those signatories told The New Yorker that the results were a “spectacular finding,” and that they’re arguably the first evidence that a software-based intervention could have effects on dementia. Lead author Jerri Edwards said that the problem is that “people lump everything together” with brain training: If some methods don’t work, others might.

But it’s hard to cram all that nuance into a clickable, shareable headline. And the reality is that most Americans only read the headline, and maybe a bit beyond that. And humans’ widespread confirmation bias means that we see the things we want to believe are true. So yeah, a game that takes ten-hour long sessions to stave off dementia — sound good, doesn’t it?