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Do ‘Brain Training’ Games Work? It Depends on Which Scientists You Ask

Just two months after a group of neuroscientists criticized commercially available brain games, a different group of scientists released an open letter on Wednesday saying the products do show promise.

In October the Stanford Center on Longevity and nearly 70 scientists issued a statement objecting to claims that such games “offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline.”

In response, more than 120 scientists have now signed an open letter to the Stanford center rebutting some parts of its criticism and asserting that a “substantial and growing body of evidence shows that certain cognitive-training regimens can significantly improve cognitive function, including in ways that generalize to everyday life.” The letter includes a list of 132 studies that its signatories say “directly demonstrate that computerized cognitive training can improve cognition.”

“The authors of the longevity-center statement properly concluded that a large body of work has shown there is plasticity throughout the brain and throughout life,” said Michael M. Merzenich, who led the effort to compose the new open letter, in a news release. Mr. Merzenich is a professor emeritus of neuroscience, physiology, and otolaryngology at the University of California at San Francisco and the co-founder and chief scientific officer of Posit Science, the cognitive-training company behind a program called BrainHQ. “It was rather astounding, then, that this same group failed to notice that we proved that through hundreds of studies showing we can drive positive change in the brain through directed, intensive computer-guided training. It’s silly that anyone would think that we can make cognitive training that works in labs, but not in people’s homes.”

While the letter’s signatories—who include professors of psychology and neuroscience—note that claims promoting brain games are often exaggerated and misleading, they argue that some commercially available exercises do have the potential to bolster cognition. They also express concern that the Stanford center’s statement will discourage further academic research on brain training, allowing unvetted commercial products to fill the resulting void.

Michael Marsiske, an associate professor of clinical and health psychology at the University of Florida, signed both the Stanford center’s statement and the open letter.

“I view the two statements as complementary, not oppositional,” he said in an email interview. “The first statement highlighted serious problems in the marketing of some ‘brain training’ programs, largely around making claims that had not yet been supported by evidence. The second statement reiterated these concerns, but provided more detail and nuance around the first statement.”

Mr. Marsiske has studied cognitive performance in older adults using both computer-based training and physical exercise, video games, collaboration, and mindfulness.

“So I really do believe in the point of the first statement, which is that there may be many routes to cognitive improvement,” he said. “The second statement draws attention to the critical questions that remain to be answered. There is much still to know about how lifestyle changes and cognitive interventions, separately and together, may extend cognitive fitness in older adults. That’s a point, incidentally, that was made in the first statement but that got lost in some of the subsequent press.”

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