Brain training and cognitive enhancement

If you were offered a treatment that claimed to be able to improve your memory and creativity, enhance neuroplasticity and increase cognitive ability, and prevent later cognitive decline would you take it? Many people would – at least if the recent popularity of computer-based brain-training exercises is anything to go by. Programs claiming to be able to do some or all of the above have been at the top of software charts for the last couple of years, and have sold millions of copies. Research published today in the consumer magazine ‘Which?’ pours cold water on the claims of the brain trainer manufacturers. The research concludes that there is very weak evidence that these exercises actually work.

It is worth pointing out that there isn’t good evidence that the brain trainers don’t work. The scientists who assessed the Mindfit, Lumosity and Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training just couldn’t find good quality studies to substantiate the claimed benefits. There aren’t any trials that show that such products reduce the rate or risk of dementia. Even if the brain trainers can improve your ability on some cognitive tasks there isn’t evidence to show that this ability transfers over to daily life, nor is there evidence that spending a similar amount of time playing Tetris wouldn’t do the same thing!

But one interesting point to note is that what these manufacturers have been offering is a form of cognitive enhancement – a way of artificially improving one’s mental abilities. The popularity of the exercises suggests that this is something that many people would be interested in and willing to pay for. But it is also interesting to note that (to my knowledge) there has been no controversy about this sort of enhancement. Imagine a study that showed that a significant proportion of university students were using brain-trainers in the hope of improving their scores on final examinations. Would there be an outcry over this? I suspect not.

One reason why brain trainers might be socially acceptable, while the using of methylphenidate or modafanil are not, is that there is something especially wrong about the taking of pills to improve brain performance. But we might also note that there is no particular controversy over students taking so called ‘natural remedies’ that purport to be able to improve memory and cognition (see this for example).

It might be thought that nobody worries about natural enhancers because they are extremely unlikely to actually have any significant effect on performance. A similar sort of scepticism might underlie the lack of concern about brain-trainers. But then what if the manufacturers of the brain trainers are right, and subsequent research substantiates their claims. After all it doesn’t seem implausible that cognitive exercises would work. Imagine if the use of Dr Kawashima’s exercises on a regular basis led to improved recall, and consequently to better exam performance. Would it then become controversial? Again I suspect not.

Alternatively, it might be thought that the reason that drug-based cognitive enhancers are controversial is because of concerns about their safety. Who knows if the long term use of such agents would have deleterious health consequences?

This seems a real and important concern about current pharmacological forms of cognitive enhancement. But if this is the problem with enhancers, then the answer is to make sure that the long term effects of their use is carefully studied. On this basis there would also be a good case for following up individuals who are using ‘brain trainers’ over a sufficiently long period.
But it may also mean that if the enhancers are shown to be safe in the long term, that we have then lost the main reason to be opposed to them.

But if we want to hold on to the idea that brain-training enhancements are OK, while pharmacological enhancements are not – assuming they had the same effect, and the same safety profile, we will need to find another argument.

And I (at least in the absence of cognitive enhancement) cannot think of one.

News links:

Brain trainers’ claims strain credibility Which 26/02/09

Brain training? Think again, says study Guardian 26/2/09

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