How Much do Brain Games Help your Brain?

Contributed by: Dennis Fortier, President, Medical Care Corporation

Following a recent study sponsored by the BBC and published in Nature Magazine, this topic has been in the news a great deal. I will share my opinion about the answer to the question posed in my headline but would like to first comment on how this story is being reported.

As I described in this post yesterday, we must all be careful in how we interpret scientific commentary. This is because scientists speak in a language of precision that should be regarded as such, and very precise comments should not be generalized. A common example is when scientists comment that a particular hypothesis or phenomenon "has not been proven" and the comment is erroneously generalized to mean that the hypothesis is false. That is not how a scientist would interpret the comment; they would understand that the hypothesis may well be true but more study is required to prove or disprove it.

And so it may be with brain games.

I know that many game manufacturers have cast outlandish claims into the commercial marketplace in an effort to sell "health" to the worried well. As such, I think that the scientists involved in the BBC study have correctly suggested some claims have probably been too aggressive given the current level of evidence of a benefit from brain exercises.

However, please note that their study was not particularly well designed as they were looking for an improvement in cognition based on very little brain exercise, over a short period of time, compared to a group of control subjects who also used their brains in similar exercises. These limitations are described here by Berard Croisile of HAPPYneuron and here by Alvaro Fernandez of SharpBrains, both affiliated with the brain exercise industry and both well versed in the state of the science in this field.

Keep in mind that the scientific process encompasses more than a single study, even when the study is well-designed. The full process involves hypothesis generation, iterative testing of hypotheses, and reproduced results through various study designs. Scientific facts are rarely plucked from a single study but rather shaped and codified through a series of controlled experiments and analysis. In terms of understanding the health benefits of playing brain games, the scientific process is still in its infancy.

On the whole, the hypothesis that using your brain in challenging ways will exercise neural circuits and keep them healthy is both plausible and supported by a growing body of scientific evidence. We all agree that questions about how much exercise, which types of exercises, and how much benefit one can accrue are topics requiring more study.

However, we must not generalize the conclusions from the BBC study into the false belief that the scientific jury has reached a verdict on this matter. The preponderance of evidence suggests that exercising your brain is most likely good for your cognitive health.

1 comment :

  1. Thanks for this article. There is so much hype out there. Marketers are misappropriating nascent, inconclusive observational studies to hawk vitamins, puzzles, and vapid books that suggest that a diet that includes cinnamon, wine, coffee and dark chocolate will vaccinate us from Alzheimer's disease.
    The majority of research papers are not "newsworthy" for the general population. Most are conservative in their claims, but that doesn't stop the media from over-simplifying them - and from confusing correlation with causation.
    It's a shame that the public is exposed to scientific research this way - perhaps this kind of irresponsible reporting contributes to the growing anti-science sentiment.