Do brain-training apps really work?

By | June 25, 2019

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.

Is it science or so much snake oil? The answer, it appears, is somewhere in between.

What exactly are brain-training apps?

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, 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.”

Dr. Tara Swart, a neuroscientist and psychiatrist, agrees 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. Anecdotally, Dr. Swart says that a portion of her executive clients who use brain apps “report that it is useful for switching between tasks, as a mindfulness moment, and that they do track improvements on the tasks. Longitudinal studies would show whether these correlate to real-world changes in cognitive ability or executive functions.”

And that is an important caveat: 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.

“When you learn something new it involves the strengthening of some synapses and the weakening of others,” she says. “So you can imagine thinking that a dolphin and a whale are similar, but then you learn something that’s only about dolphins and that means you have to weaken some connections in your cognition that would connect whales to that. It’s a very complicated process, of course, it’s not as simple as ‘I strengthen a synapsis, and I get better at something.’”

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 Swart.

“Brain training needs to be sufficiently attention intense to actually change the brain,” she says, offering examples such as learning a new language or a musical instrument. “An app such as Duolingo may be as or more beneficial.”

The bottom line: Brain-training apps could boost your memory and processing speed, but more studies will need to be done to prove their long-term benefits. With an aging American population eager to keep sharp—and the brain-training app industry projected to pass $6 billion by 2020—those studies are surely on their way.