Guest post by science writer Kayt Sukel
A few years ago, I was asked to write an article about the science behind “brain games,” or computer games designed to help improve cognitive function, for a popular magazine. I spoke with a variety of scientists—including those involved with companies that were marketing these games—and also examined the (quite small number) of studies that had been published on brain game efficacy. Taken together, my piece concluded that was that there was no hard and fast evidence, to date, that brain games worked as advertised. Citing the lack of a magic bullet for aging-related cognitive decline, the editor of the magazine killed my story, saying that it felt “too negative.” The magazine’s readership, she told me, wanted to be able to “do something” about keeping age-related memory and attention problems at bay.
Who wouldn’t? Many brain training companies make bold claims about the games’ effects–suggesting that just a few minutes on the computer each day could slow cognitive decline and keep neurodegeneration at bay. With that kind of messaging, it’s easy to see why the programs have become so popular. Yet, while these supposedly “scientific” claims lack evidentiary basis, few scientists have come out publicly against them.
When I researched my original article, I interviewed Arthur Kramer, a neuroscientist who studies exercise and cognition at the University of Illinois (see this month’s Cerebrum essay, “The Brain Games Conundrum,” co-authored by Kramer and Wally Boot). He confided then that he felt that too many scientists who specialized in aging were “erring on the side of silence” when it came to brain games: They were not using their expertise to caution consumers about the lack of scientific data behind the marketing claims. But just this week, in a consensus statement published by the Stanford Center on Longevity and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, more than 70 scientists, including Kramer, broke that silence by signing a comprehensive declaration objecting to the way that brain training is currently marketed and calling for more research.
They declared: “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 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 below, exaggerated and misleading claims exploit the anxieties of older adults about impending cognitive decline. We encourage continued careful research and validation in this field.”
Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, says that the center had issued a similar statement in 2008—but it did not gain much traction at the time.
“What’s changed in the past 5 years is that brain games have become a really big business. We hear about them and how well they supposedly work every day on National Public Radio and from other trusted sources,” she says. “And now, this is something that much of the public feels you have to do to stay healthy. You exercise, you eat right and you play brain games. It’s really become part of the public consciousness.”
Carstensen says that many researchers began to feel irresponsible for not speaking out, and wanted to find a way to participate in this very public discourse about the effects of brain training on successful aging.
“This was a year-long process, with a lot of people looking at the evidence and making edits to this statement,” says Carstensen. “And we feel that this was a very responsible thing to do. There are a lot of voices out there that are very optimistic, saying that brain games are the best thing you can do for a brain. But those same consumers should also hear from the scientists—and know that they are cautioning people about how effective brain games really are. It’s my hope, if they hear from both sides, consumers can make more informed choices about how to stay healthy as they age.”