The claims sound too good to be true: Spend just 15 minutes a day with a brain-training app like Lumosity and you could see a marked improvement in your memory, processing speed, and arithmetic reasoning—all by playing a game that tasks you with something as simple as feeding a school of fish or helping ants avoid a collision.
In fact, according to the Mayo Clinic, results are often only mild to moderate—with no real evidence they work to prevent cognitive decline, like dementia. There is some debate over whether these apps improve cognition, or simply train people to be better at the app itself. There is little proof that the apps help improve functioning in other life tasks.
Are the reports of their efficacy science or so much snake oil? The answer, it appears, is probably somewhere in between.
What exactly are brain training apps?
If you search brain training, you will find a lot of apps that claim to build cognitive skills—to help you think faster, focus better, and even claim to fight conditions like dementia or ADHD—all by playing games on your phone. Apps like Peak, Elevate, and CogniFit are computerized cognitive training programs, which utilize gameplay to essentially “exercise” your brain the way a brisk walk or run would exercise your body.
The difference being that while there is a vast body of research indicating the benefits of breaking a sweat, research is ongoing about the efficacy of brain-boosting apps.
“Five years ago there was really no evidence that these sorts of activities could have a significant improvement on things we can measure, like memory recall,” says Tamily Weissman, Ph.D., a neuroscientist and associate professor of biology at Lewis & Clark College. “More trustworthy studies have been done in recent years, which really do start to point to some definite measurable positive effects of using these sorts of brain-boosting activities.”
Tara Swart, Ph.D., MD, a neuroscientist and psychiatrist, says that the research isn’t definitive: “There is equivocal evidence that brain-boosting apps such as Lumosity produce significant brain changes associated with learning or plasticity,” she says. “Longitudinal studies would show whether these correlate to real-world changes in cognitive ability or executive functions.” Meaning, while Lumosity might train you to excel at the games in the app, it’s unproven if those benefits translate to improved focus at school or at work.
“There has been much controversy over the last few years regarding whether or not apps that claim to improve cognition actually do what they say,” agrees Kasey Nichols, NMD, medical contributor from RAVEReviews.org. “Proponents on both sides point to studies that can be used to support cognitive improvements apps and those that show that there is little cognitive improvement over time. The reality is that research involving apps that claim to improve cognitive abilities is still in its infancy.”
“When viewing the research as it stands today,” Dr. Nichols continues, “you’d likely come to the conclusion that apps that claim to improve cognitive abilities are useful in training specific cognitive tasks in the apps being used. Whether or not these cognitive improvements translate to other cognitive tasks that are useful in everyday life is yet to be uncovered. Financial interests often complicate the studies that have been conducted thus far along with a lack of long term studies.”
And that is an important note: While studies may support the short-term benefits of brain-training apps, there are no studies that track the 20-, 30-, or 40-year effects.
How do brain-training apps work?
Brain training apps are considered an active behavior, as opposed to a passive behavior, such as watching TV. Active behaviors help strengthen the brain’s neural circuits, according to Weissman.
“Forcing yourself to think through something more actively keeps the neural circuits in your brain more active, and there’s definitely evidence from all different types of studies that the more a neural circuit is activated the easier it is to activate it later,” she says. “Neural circuits are these connections of neurons that are all over the brain that allow us to control behavior. We know that when one of those is activated repeatedly over time that it can lead to the strengthening of that connection.”
But, says Weissman, it’s a misconception that strengthening these connections (also known as synapses) is always good and weakening them is always bad.
Of course, there are other ways to strengthen these synapses if smartphone games aren’t your thing, but there are a few parameters to keep in mind, says Dr. Swart.
“Brain training needs to be sufficiently attention-intense to actually change the brain,” explains Dr. Swart, offering examples such as learning a new language or a musical instrument. “An app such as Duolingo may be as or more beneficial.”
Do brain games work?
The bottom line: The jury is still out on the evidence behind their efficacy. According to some experts, brain-training apps could help boost certain cognitive functions. But, other experts say the apps have no benefit outside of entertainment. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) ruled that brain-training apps cannot make false claims that they help conditions like ADHD and Alzheimer’s disease. More studies will need to be done to prove their long-term benefits.
“There should be a healthy skepticism when approaching brain training applications, but this shouldn’t necessarily prevent you from giving these programs a try. It’s too early to know for sure if these applications will have applicable real-world improvements in cognition,” explains Dr. Nichols. “For some consciously focusing on improving particular cognitive performance measures can end up noticeably enhancing cognition.”
In other words, brain-training apps could work—but they also could do nothing. If you don’t mind spending money on a subscription, there probably isn’t much downside to giving them a try.
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