The idea of playing a game to make you sharper seems like a no-brainer. That's the thinking behind a billion-dollar industry selling brain training games and programs designed to boost cognitive ability.
But an investigation by CBC's Marketplace reveals that brain training games such as Lumosity may not make your brain perform better in everyday life.
Almost 15 per cent of Canadians over the age of 65 are affected by some kind of dementia. And many people of all ages are worried about maintaining their brain health and possibly preventing a decline in their mental abilities.
"I don't think there's anything to say that you can train your brain to be cognitively better in the way that we know that we can train our bodies to be physically better," neuroscientist Adrian Owen told Marketplace co-host Tom Harrington.
To test how effective the games are at improving cognitive function, Marketplace partnered with Owen, who holds the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience and Imaging at the Brain and Mind Institute at Western University.
Watch the complete investigation, Mind Games, a special one-hour season finale of Marketplace, on Friday at 8 p.m. (8:30 p.m. NT) on CBC TV and online.
A group of 54 adults, including Harrington, did the brain training at least three times per week for 15 minutes or more over a period of between two and a half and four weeks. The group underwent a complete cognitive assessment at the beginning and end of the training to see if there had been any change as the result of the training program.
The assessment tested performance in memory, reasoning, concentration and planning.
At the end of the training period, researchers analyzed the results and found no significant improvement on any of the tests.
'Taking control of your own brain'
The group used a training program called Lumosity, created by California-based Lumos Labs, which describes itself as "a leader in the science of brain training." Lumosity is one of the most popular cognitive training programs, with 70 million members in 180 countries.
The Lumosity program is made up of more than 40 games designed to improve cognitive abilities, including memory, attention and problem solving. Members are supposed to play the games for 15 minutes, three to five times a week. Membership costs $15 per month.
A 2007 press release from the company calls the games "a scientifically developed online brain fitness program demonstrated to improve memory and attention with fun and effective brain workouts."
"Lumosity is a personal trainer that helps you exercise your brain," a video on the company's website says.
Lumosity declined to speak with Marketplace on camera about the investigation. In a statement, the company said: "We cannot comment on unpublished research. Numerous studies have shown that cognitive training, including Lumosity, improves cognitive performance. Well designed cognitive training studies include sufficient training time — at least 10 hours."
The company launched in 2005. Co-founder Michael Scanlon said he started to learn about the brain after both his grandmothers were diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.
"I started getting excited about the possibility of leveraging your brain's plasticity and the way it changes to make a product that people could use and to really become more empowered about taking control of your own brain," he said in an interview with the technology news site TechCrunch.
No 'magic bullet'
But researchers are concerned that the benefits of brain training have been overstated.
Last October, 70 scientists released a statement titled "A Consensus on the Brain Training Industry from the Scientific Community," expressing concern about the way that brain games such as Lumosity are marketed.
"We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do," the statement reads.
"The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the best evidence to date, which is that cognitive health in old age reflects the long-term effects of healthy, engaged lifestyles. In the judgment of the signatories, exaggerated and misleading claims exploit the anxiety of older adults about impending cognitive decline."
Zachary Hambrick, professor of cognitive neuroscience at Michigan State University, says companies need to demonstrate that playing the games make you better at doing everyday tasks, not just better at the games themselves.
"What they really need to demonstrate — in a randomized controlled trial of the sort that a company would have to do for approval of a drug — is that Lumosity training actually improves real-world outcomes like performance in the classroom, the workplace, etc., and in everyday tasks like driving, remembering to perform errands," he says.
"In my opinion, the science so far has failed to establish that real-world relevance."
Owen, who designed the Marketplace test, said that if the games had long-term effects, they would have been evident after a few weeks of training.
"These people have done, I think, what most people would consider a reasonable investment of their time, they've put in quite a lot of effort; they've done quite a bit of training. And there's not even a hint of an effect," he said.
Owen says the games may be fun – just don't expect them to be effective.
"If you enjoy playing these games, fine, play the games. But just don't do it if you think it's making you smarter. Because I don't think the scientific evidence supports that," says Owen.