Apr 30, 2010 by Terri Zezula

BBC brain training study A recent study on brain video games is causing discussions worldwide on the benefits of brain training and programs developed to improve brain functioning. The study, published in Nature and summarized on Nature News, titled “No Gain From Brain Training,” was conducted with adults, average age 39, who practiced a series of online tasks for a minimum of ten minutes a day, three times a week, for six weeks.

These tasks, focused on reasoning, planning and problem-solving abilities, were tests and not exercises intended to improve cognitive skills. While the outcome of the study brings the concept of brain training to the forefront of online discussion sites, it’s important to note that the clarification of brain video games, brain training programs and brain fitness programs and the origins of the research behind the development of these products are critical to the discussions. 

What differentiates the Scientific Learning products from those advertised as “brain video games” or “brain training programs” is the science: decades of research into how students learn preceded the development of our products. For more than 30 years, neuroscientists at Scientific Learning have studied the way the brain learns.

The expertise and collaboration of Drs. Michael Merzenich, William Jenkins, Paula Tallal, and Steven Miller, the founders of Scientific Learning, along with several other cognitive neuroscientists, resulted in the development of a research-based series of products. The Fast ForWord® software is based on the science of how the brain learns and retains information. It utilizes the principles of neuroscience and learning to exercise and develop the brain's processing efficiency, essential for academic learning and reading success.

Brain plasticity research demonstrates that completing learning tasks in a frequent, intense timeframe accelerates learning. Just as exercise promotes physical fitness, exercising our brain improves brain fitness in four critical areas: memory, attention, processing and sequencing.

In addition, the research is recognized and supported by other scientists in peer reviews from Stanford University, Cornell University, UCSF Medical Center & Rutgers University, and many other top Universities, including a recent study by Dr. Nadine Gaab of Children’s Hospital Boston ((Gaab, N., Gabrieli, J.D.E., Deutsch, G.K., Tallal, P., & Temple, E. (2007). Neural correlates of rapid auditory processing are disrupted in children with developmental dyslexia and ameliorated with training: An fMRI study. Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience, 25, 295-310)).

Finding the right product to improve cognitive skills can be overwhelming for the consumer. Numerous articles and research studies can be found online that address the interest and concern in this popular field of learning and brain development. In fact, a Google search on “brain video games” resulted in more than 32 million hits! Members of the education community, parents and teachers alike, who are looking for programs for their students, should be cognizant of the importance of scientific research.

If a product is touted as “research-based,” what are the origins, extent and validity of that research? Are the products intended to test or improve cognitive skills? According to Dr. William Jenkins, Scientific Learning's Chief Scientific Officer, “a program that is designed to improve cognitive, reading or language skills and build brain fitness is adaptive to the student’s abilities; critical tasks are practiced at an appropriate frequency and intensity; multiple skills are cross-trained at the same time for lasting improvement; and rewards are built into the program for maximum motivation as the student progresses.”

In the study referenced above, “No Gain From Brain Training,” researchers believe that none of the groups who participated in the study boosted their performance on tests measuring general cognitive abilities such as memory, reasoning and learning. Participants in the study were volunteers who were viewers of a popular BBC game show, “Bang Goes the Theory.” The study required the participants to complete tasks for only 10 minutes a day, 3 times a week.

While the study concluded that there is no evidence of “any generalized improvements in cognitive function following brain training in a large sample of healthy adults,” it is a study that leads to more questions than answers. Were the tasks measures of current cognitive skills or were they designed to build upon these skills? The study leads the reader to conclude that these were tests of cognitive ability, not exercises to improve skills. So the conclusion that the programs did not improve cognitive function is baffling. Were the tasks adaptive, motivating, and practiced with intensity and frequency? Was there cross-training on multiple tasks to build cognitive skills? How comprehensive is a study conducted on participants who complete tasks for only a few minutes a week?

Based on the intensive studies done on proven brain training or brain fitness products already on the market that follow the basic principles of clinical trial studies (i.e Posit Science, a brain fitness program for adults), this study is not a strong indicator of the results that can be realized with a true research-based program. Whether programs are defined as brain training or brain video games or tasks designed to test cognitive skills, they don’t necessarily have the intensive scientific research that is the foundation of a proven brain fitness program.