Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Cognitive Function Brain Training

Sometimes I just don't understand researchers. I recently read about a study done in England through the Medical Research Council, Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit whose design was almost guaranteed to have a certain outcome. This study is another example of how researchers often come to conclusions that are not based upon their own evidence. This was an interesting study evaluating the effectiveness of brain training exercises on cognitive functioning.

The researchers invited viewers of the BBC program "Bang Goes the Theory" to participate. Out of 55,617 applicants 11,430 completed baseline assessments of reasoning, verbal short term memory, spatial working memory, and paired- associates learning. This was an on line study which I think is pretty neat. The participants were randomly assigned to 3 groups. One group trained in tasks that emphasized reasoning, planning, and problem solving. Another group looked at a broader range of functions including short term memory, attention, visuospatial processing and mathematics. The control group was simply assigned to surf the internet. To make the tests challenging the difficulty of the training increased as the participants improved. This study is an interesting idea. What they found was that after 6 weeks there were no differences in the three groups. The lead investigator commented that his study was important because brain training is "a multimillion-pound industry" and that the scientific basis for brain training is lacking.

This study however really did not answer the question of whether or not brain training is helpful. The trial involved over 11,000 people for only six weeks. To have a statistically significant result would require a tremendous increase in cognitive performance which is very unlikely if at all possible to see within 6 weeks. People use brain training exercises and computer programs and games to try to improve long term cognitive functioning. I don't think many people expect to be any smarter in 6 weeks. To me though the important question to ask is whether or not brain training has any effect on slowing the cognitive decline associated with aging or has any protective effect to reduce the risk of dementia. A 6 week study is meaningless.

So this is another example of how we need to be careful in simply accepting researchers opinions of their studies. This will be reported in the media and people will make the assumption that brain training exercises have no value. This study doesn't really answer that question so we really are no better off in our scientific knowledge than we were before the study was initiated.

Thought for the day

Though life is fleeting love is everlasting.

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