What is brain training and can it affect memory ability?

Whether it’s games of Sudoku or training your brain to remember certain facts or words, brain training is big business. But does it actually work?

In a nutshell

Strictly speaking, the brain is not a muscle. However, there are many who believe that you can exercise it in the same way that you would a muscle, and that the ‘use it or lose it’ ethos can apply to your brain and memory ability.

Did you know? Brain training and memory boosting is now a massive market as more and more people look for ways to boost their abilities. According to SharpBrains, a market research firm tracking the “neuro-wellness” industry, the market for brain fitness products produced by companies such as Lumosity, Cogmed, and Posit Science is currently around £810m worldwide, and is projected to rise to £3.9bn by 2020.

Here's the science

Brain training can either be carried out in a laboratory environment as part of a study, or it can be done at home through computer games and apps. The idea behind it is that cell connections in the brain can be improved through specific activities. This is because of something called ‘neuroplasticity’, that is, the idea that the brain is mouldable and changeable, and that you can change and build on these brain connections to increase abilities such as memory, attention, sensory processing and reasoning.

Brain training can take on many forms. From specific lab-based exercises carried out under a scientific environment, to computerised games you can download to your phone.

However, there has been much debate about what, if any, difference can be made by doing these activities.

The case FOR brain training

A study carried out at John Hopkins University in the US recruited 2,800 older people for a cognitive training intervention. They were given 10 hour-long training sessions over five to six weeks in three cognitive skills: memory, reasoning and speed of processing.

Researchers discovered that the cognitive ability improved more than those who did not receive any training, and that the improvements still showed more than a decade later.

More recently, a Finnish study found that brain training could reduce dementia risk when accompanied by a programme of healthy eating, exercise, and the management of risk factors such as high blood pressure (associated with vascular dementia).

The case AGAINST brain training

However, there have also been reports that brain training doesn’t really make much difference.

A study in 2014 from the University of Sydney looked at solo brain training games that you can play at home, and found they had no beneficial effect on cognitive abilities. Researchers did agree, however, that brain training carried under controlled environments (ie in a lab) could be beneficial. In many cases, the problem is that many brain games on the market haven’t been tested under controlled conditions, so lack the research to back up claims that they improve memory.

Other critics have questioned whether brain training games are any better than other cognitive pursuits such as playing a musical instrument or learning a new language or skill. Researchers from the University of Southern California looked at cognitive training and found it had about the same beneficial effect as aerobic exercise.

So what should I do?

Spending hours a day doing brain training games is probably not the best way to prevent cognitive decline. As the saying goes, a little bit of everything does you good. So, doing a regular bit of brain training once or twice a week in combination with other lifestyle changes such as eating a healthy diet, taking regular exercise, giving up smoking and having social contact with other people, is probably a more effective way to boost brainpower. It will also help you feel much better, too.