Brain Training: Does it Work?

By | November 12, 2012

We’ll give you the answer up front: It depends.

With the growing number of brain training products and cognitive training service providers in the market today, it’s important to understand the potential benefits and drawbacks of formalized, structured cognitive training.

Using analogies with physical rehabilitation and fitness training can help define the type (and potential benefits) of many of these brain training products.

Analogy 1: Cognitive Rehabilitation = Physical Rehabilitation

Serious accidents can cause serious physical injuries, and health care systems have developed a pretty well defined rehabilitation process to achieve the best possible recovery after sustaining broken bones, torn ligaments, and other unfortunate occurrences. The same goes for physical therapy after surgery for a hip or knee replacement. Generally, physical rehabilitation can last from a few weeks to several months.

Cognitive rehabilitation can be viewed as brain exercise therapy for cognitive problems associated with conditions such as ADHD, autism, and brain injuries (severe concussion, stroke, etc). Cognitive rehabilitation relies on the process of neuroplasticity, where the brain has an innate capability to rewire itself to regain skills, and workaround damaged neural connections. The techniques and timeframes for cognitive rehab aren’t as well defined as they are for physical rehab, but a few months to several years can be a typical range.

Successful rehabilitation, whether cognitive or physical, requires sticking to a schedule that challenges the body and brain to heal. For example, Cogmed provides a software based ADHD remediation program that lasts an average of 8 weeks, with 4 training sessions each week (each session is about 45 minutes). Cogmed has published some peer reviewed research that shows ADHD symptom improvement is possible (for both children and adults) *if* the rigorous training schedule is followed.

Posit Science and SuperBetter are two other companies with a cognitive rehabilitation focus. Posit Science originally began as a brain training software company, but has now moved entirely online with their new BrainHQ offering. SuperBetter was created by a game designer who suffered a severe concussion and then struggled through recovery. SuperBetter provides a path to reach brain health goals through achievable, incremental steps with help from the game and allies (friends & family) that users enlist.

Analogy 2: Brain Training = Fitness Training

Whether it’s joining a gym, signing up for yoga classes, or training for a marathon, people usually have a health goal such as shedding weight, keeping in shape, or improving flexibility and strength. Likewise with brain training, the goals tend to be along the lines of better focus and memory, improved processing speed and the ability to learn faster.

Lumosity and MindSparke Brain Fitness are two general purpose brain training sites. They both offer a variety of brain training exercises that are based on sound neuroscience principles. The exercises are structured more as games, versus “boring” cognitive tests.

A more hands-on approach to brain training, especially for school age children, comes from LearningRX, a franchise business that offers a blend of traditional tutoring and classroom brain exercises.

The science is a bit more fuzzy on the utility of general brain training for cognitively healthy individuals. It certainly won’t hurt to play with brain training programs, but current research hasn’t yet proven that general brain training transfers to improved performance at school, work, and everyday life.

Want to try your hand at some free brain exercises? Try these memory and brain speed tests.