As my regulars will know I like to keep abreast of movements in the brain training game market. All the major players tend to include a core set of “classic” brain training games that are clearly inspired by neurological tests that have been around for many decades e.g. Take for instance working memory training – the only games for which there is any half decent published data in the peer-reviewed science literature supporting claims that it can actually improve cognition (and even that evidence is hotly contested!).
TUNNEL TRANCE – progresses from the 1-back task to the 2-back (same as the image before last?) to the 3-back (same as the one before the one before last) – this really has the potential to genuinely help people hold more information in mind when they are performing a real life task. PARTIAL MATCH – the task is to rapidly decide whether the image is identical to the last image, completely different, or partially the same (i.e. A common symptom of depression is the tendency to ruminate over negative thoughts or emotions. Now that the great potential for brain training is out of the bag all sorts of digital developers are falling over each other in their scramble to capitalise on the growing interest; first catalysed by Nintendo with their launch of Dr Kawashima’s Brain Age on the Nintendo DS. The BBC’s Bang Goes The Theory show made a big fuss of a Nature paper indicating that brain training was ineffective for the under 65’s. The jury might be out on which aspects of brain training do and don’t work, but I think it is fair to say that there is every reason to believe that it has great potential to do you good and very little potential to do ill – so why not give it a go.
However what these commercial offerings do provide is a structured training program, consisting of a wide variety of different games and puzzles, the opportunity to measure and keep track of your progress and the convenience that might encourage you to train for long enough and regularly enough to notice some benefits. However, lack of proof of a brain training effect is not the same as proving beyond all reasonable doubt that brain training doesn’t work. The compromises that they had to make in order to pull off such a large clinical trial are inevitable, but may have hampered their ability to capture any discernible effect.
REASONING: the selected tests may not have been sensitive enough to detect subtle improvements that occur with such a sparse training regime.
SOLUTION: compare brain training games on Nintendo DS to normal games on Nintendo DS in order to take these important issues into account. The synapses connecting various different groups of brain cells together that are responsible for perfoming a certain task, say a crossword for instance, are strengthened each time to try to solve the puzzle in order that they can function slightly more efficiently next time round. We all know that practice makes perfect and the strengthening of connections between the relevant brain areas to enable more efficient communication between them is the reason why.
Nintendo DS were the first console manufacturer to produce and market games with the aim of improving brain function which all started with the release of Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training in 2005. AboutThis website contains everything you need to know about Dr Jack Lewis – brain scientist, television presenter, motivational speaker, writer and neuroscience consultant.
You will find showreels, reviews of books and brain training products, tips on getting the most out of your brain, updates on television projects and a repository of brainposts describing groundbreaking developments in brain science made relevant, compelling and accessible for one and all (see Categories). If you require Dr Jack’s input as a presenter, consultant or speaker on a science-related topic, click here and get in touch! If you liked the periodic table products from my last post on the subject, you may also like the WebElements Shop. If you’ve ever played Top Trumps as a child, you will be familiar with the rules of this game. This is a deck of 49 cards that you can use to play 7 different chemistry games which range in difficulty for children of different ages. Get the latest from Figur8 delivered straight to your inbox so you'll never miss an update! Nurture for the future is about developing the whole child - heart, mind and body - so that they grow up to become happy, confident and successful adults.
Dr Shen-Li Lee is a freelance writer and mum to two boys who have been the inspiration for her ongoing study in child development and education. Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) is rapidly becoming one of the most important research tools in clinical neuroscience. The UCD Interdisciplinary TMS Laboratory is dedicated to improving our understanding of diseases affecting the central nervous system and developing treatments for these conditions. The TMS laboratory is equipped with standard circular and figure of eight coils as well as specialized coils for repetitive applications and the targeting of deeper cortical structures.
The TMS facility is also tied to the Department of Neurology and the UCD Depression Center where we are involved in clinical trials and the off-label use of TMS as a treatment modality for various neuropsychiatric disorders.
I’ve reviewed Nintendo DS’s titles from the Dr Kawashima, Lumosity and even some that weren’t specifically designed to improve cognitive functions, yet arguably do. The spatial working memory training games like PERILOUS PATH (memorise the position of the mines whilst they’re briefly displayed and then trace a path around them from random start to finish points), MEMORY SWEEP (remember and reproduce the position of illuminated blocks in larger and larger grids) and BOUNCE (guess the finishing point of a laser beam sent bouncing across angled mirrors distributed across the grid after a brief glimpse of where they are) have all been done before, but these are all great versions. For example, RUSH BACK involves simply answering whether each presented image is the same or different as the previous one. It probably goes up to 4-back and beyond… if so, I simply haven’t performed well enough at the 3-back task to get promoted to the next level.
An effective but simply remedy is to develop the habit of dwelling instead on the positive whilst disregarding the negative. They are on opposite side of the banks of a river that have several rows of words streaming across it either from left to right or right to left. You start with a bird’s eye view of some lush green fields at the middle of which are 4 landing spots for airships that fly into view from top, bottom, left or right of screen. Scientific evidence backing the effectiveness of brain training is slowly but surely growing, , as far as I can tell. There are lots of computer games out there which, often completely by accident, tend to improve cognitive functions that are relevant and useful in everyday life.
Uptake may have mellowed in the handheld digital console market since 2001 but PC-based subscription services that offer a suite of cognitive training games (like Lumosity) have very much taken over the reins. A good rule of thumb is that you should not believe anything reported in a single scientific paper until many other experiments have been done, ideally by other unconnected independent research groups, whose findings tally with the original.


20 million subscribers who perceive some kind of benefit can’t all be wrong, surely?!
If you were kind enough to follow me you could also catch my thrice daily tweets, which headline and link to brain research breakthroughs from lay-friendly sources that I judge to be potentially compelling and relevant to all. Indeed, claims that it can improve memory, make us smarter, sharpen reaction times and improve general brain power have convinced over 3 million of us in the UK alone to buy this game (including me!
The only problem is that in the 5 years since these games were launched there has not been a single shred of independent evidence (to my knowledge) that these games actually benefit brain functions useful in everyday life, rather than just the inevitable performance improvements in the games themselves. At the bottom of this piece is a list of 5 reasons why the results of Bang Goes the Theory’s Lab UK study does not necessarily mean that brain training on consoles like the Nintendo DS is ineffective. In order to get such large numbers of people to participate they clearly needed to avoid requiring people to give up their time too often and for an unnecessarily protracted period of time; otherwise people would have dropped out of the trial like flies. I would ask an independent scientific body to find a suitable group of research scientists who could conduct a fully independent study totally uncorrupted by any conflicts of interest.
In other words not surprising that there was no significant improvement because it didn’t tax the participants brains hard enough to benefit memory, planning, problem solving etc. Here they seem to want the negative findings and hence the improvements in the elderly are downplayed until further investigation. Brain teasers include word games, number puzzles, spot the difference, Where’s Wally-type games, attention directing or splitting challenges, general knowledges quizes and so on. Two brain imaging studies have demonstrated that when people practice a skill very hard for prolongued periods of time despite the fact that the changes happen at the ultramicroscopic level of the synapses where two brain cells meet the net effect of billions of these changes occuring over many months is that the grey matter gets larger in the part of the brain responsible for that function. If you do the crossword every day, then the net effect of many slight overnight adjustments to the brain areas involved in searching your memory for suitable words that have a certain meaning, a certain number of letters and specific letters in at certain positions within the word, become noticably better after just a few days.
Of course getting good at doing crosswords is not particularly useful in its own right, but the point is that once you become good at recalling suitable words for the sake of the crossword, you will also find it easier and quicker to bring the appropriate word to mind during conversation or when creating written documents – and that can be extremely useful. This predominantly involes some quite predictable tasks like the Sudoku number puzzles, simple rapid-fire arithmetic, but also some unexpected treats like the Stroop Test (naming the colour of the font ignoring the meaning of the word which can be tricky when the word RED is written in blue font!) which take advantage of some pretty nifty voice processing software. Such a message is particularly enticing for people entering into old age, for whom the prospect of holding onto their marbles for as long as possible is extremely desirable and thus motivating. She searches for the balance in child development methods and educational philosophies that will encourage the nurture of happy, confident and successful children.
TMS utilizes rapid magnetic pulses applied over the scalp with a small hand-held coil to induce precisely timed and localized electrical currents within the cortex of human subjects.
Our associated faculty includes members of the Departments of Neurology, Psychiatry, Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Orthopedics, Internal Medicine, Psychology and Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences. Our stimulators are capable of delivering single pulse, paired pulse and repetitive stimulation. Basic service includes preparatory time and TMS stimulation time and is billed based on time of use.
Unlike their rivals who seem to be happy with the basic versions, PEAK seems to continually evolve each game by adding a twist or making each game a little bit tougher.
A 1-back task like this hardly challenges working memory because you can use iconic memory (the visual impression left in the mind’s eye for a few tens of milliseconds after any object disappears from view).
Bear this in mind as you read on because I’m convinced that HAPPY RIVER can only be a power for good, which suggests that PEAK really are keeping an eye on the latest developments in psychology and neuroscience to find inspiration for their new game pipeline. Swedish neuroscientist Torkel Klingberg has been at the forefront of research into computer-based brain training focused on increasing the capacity of working memory for over a decade. Parents who bemoan the hundreds of hours a year “wasted” by their children playing shoot ‘em up games may be cheered by the news that such games can actually improve visual perception . The brain behind Memneon, Steve Turnbull, may feel that for me to suggest it is Simon for the 21st century would be selling it short. By the autumn of 2009 the BBC had clocked that is was high time that the concept of Brain Training was put to the test and set the “biggest brain training experiment ever” in motion – an independent clinical trial the results of which would be published in a suitable peer-reviewed journal. What led them to create their own games, rather than testing existing ones, may have involved the desire to avoid the potential wrath of powerful multinational companies. This group should together combine a thorough understanding of the human brain with specific experience in measuring the cognitive abilities of healthy individuals – perhaps an education specialist, an occupational psychologist and a neuroscientist. Brain training simply involves perfoming various different brain teasers on a regular basis. The part of the brain that controls hand movements is significantly larger in professional string and keyboard musicians than non-musicians because of all the training they have done over the years to manipulate their instruments with split second precision. In this regard the key thing to remember is that, as far as the brain is concerned, it’s a simple matter of use it or lose it. Unlike other neuroimaging techniques, TMS modifies cortical activity and can thus be used to make causal inferences and treat certain illnesses.
Areas of research interest include the treatment of psychiatric disorders, improving rehabilitation and speech therapy outcomes, investigating the neurophysiology of movement disorders and integrating TMS with other imaging modalities (MRI, MEG and EEG). We are currently purchasing a system to allow the stereotactic delivery of TMS pulses based on neuroimaging (MRI). Training in the application of TMS paradigms and a TMS technician are also available for an additional fee.  Investigators interested in using TMS will need to submit a Study Protocol Request (see link below) which will be reviewed by the steering committee. They quite rightly class this as a test of “focus”, because if you lose concentration then it is easy to accidentally push the wrong button. I appreciate that PEAK are putting in the effort to innovate and that it took me a surprisingly long time to get the hang of. Your task is to plot the movement of each airship so that they line up on the ground in an order that spells a 4-letter word. He and his team have identified a positive correlation between working memory improvements and IQ score.
Then, in 2007, Lumos Labs launched “Lumosity” – a web-based, subscriber-accessed, brain training program with an ever-expanding range of colourful and engaging brain training games.


There have been reports that brain training works – but these studies were invariably linked to the very companies that had a vested interest in such findings. Even if they had been brave enough to wish to test the actual games to which the claims were attached the BBC would never have got away with wasting license fee payers money by coughing up the cash to issue each of these volunteers with a Nintendo DS – even if it would mean benefiting from the advances of speed-enhancing touch screen and voice-recognition technologies.
They would oversee a further large-scale, independent, clinical trial that implements a more intense training program based on the best brain training game in the Nintendo DS armoury. Exercising brain areas involved in problem-solving by tackling word games, logical reasoning problems, memory challenges and number puzzles keeps such mental faculties in tip-top condition.
TMS has been used to investigate neurophysiologic parameters (such as cortical excitability), to map cortical functions non-invasively, to determine the precise timing of cerebral events, and to investigate the function of specific cortical areas. We are also upgrading our electromyography (EMG) capabilities to allow for better integrated muscle physiology recordings. The airspace can get pretty crowded so half the challenge is to do what all air traffic control professionals do so well – stop the aircraft from smashing into each other and showering the sky with debris. Too much time spent locked into game mode displaces much of the time that could be spent cultivating soft skills. So I think people should take sensationalist headlines with a pinch of salt and wait to see which way the balance of evidence tips.
Just one year later Lumos labs managed to attract $3,000,000 in private investment to further develop their cognitive training offerings. They have certainly demonstrated that the games they created, when played infrequently, across a relatively short period of time, using an outdated user control interface (that slows down the speed at which responses can be made in time-critical games), did not lead to improvements in a separate set of ‘benchmarking’ games that may or may not have been sensitive enough to detect improvements in attention, memory and problem solving skills. Yet until further clinical trials, including some that investigate the potential of brain training in a way that gives it the best possible chance to shine, have confirmed or contradicted the current findings – I myself will not be throwing my DS away just yet. I would develop a battery of tests that are able to capture improvements in brain function that actually come in useful during everyday life, as opposed to performance improvements in a rather arbitrary batch of computer games.
The more often you perform a certain mental function the more the brain will do to make changes so that the next time you do it, you can perform it slightly faster, with a greater degree of success and more efficiently. If you don’t continue to use these mental abilities then they will fall into disrepair because the brain receives no indication that connections between appropriate areas should be maintained and reinforced.
TMS is also being used in clinical research in the diagnosis of diseases affecting the corticospinal tract, the planning of neurosurgical procedures and the treatment of many conditions, including depression, hallucinations, pain, tinnitus, Parkinson’s disease and stroke rehabilitation. This year I’ll be subscribing them to PEAK instead, because having regularly used it on my phone to kill time whilst in transit (or on the throne) for the best part of a year I genuinely think the (relatively) new kid on the block wipes the floor with Lumosity. You also have to be strategic because only those words with positive emotional overtones provide safe passage. For this game you need to think strategically, flexibly, linguistically, constantly updating the flight paths for a steadily increasing number of craft whilst simultaneously keeping your eye on an icon in the top right corner to win extra points.
These broadly undervalued  yet completely invaluable set of social skills can only be honed properly through regular, intensive, face-to-face communication.
And as with all things people will inevitably take a concept and move it on to the next level. However, their failure to detect any improvements whatsoever (in the under 60’s at least) could boil down to any of these factors or more likely a combination of them.
Although there is no published data yet to prove it, my hunch is that having to divide your attention across so many competing concerns and continually re-evaluate your priorities, will tune up brain pathways that would surely come in useful for any high pressured professional. IQ approximates to what we commonly think of as intelligence – but it is blind to a host of cognitive abilities that are very useful for the individual and highly valued in human society; like creativity, social skills, kinesthetic abilities and so on. They make many aspects of personal and professional life that take place in the real, as opposed to virtual, world function so much more smoothly that society would be well advised to place a greater emphasis on the importance of ensuring they are cultivated at all costs. If they are better able to remember a route on a map after training, then they will be less likely to suffer the stress and inconvenience of getting lost. By emulating the lifestyles of individuals enjoying a healthy brain in their 80s and 90s, who have regular social interaction, cards games, read extensively, stay physically active and challenge themselves daily with various puzzles and quizes, the odds of being afflicted by Alzheimer’s disease are reduced by 25%. So to successfully reunite the baby elephant with its mother you have to focus on the positive and avoid the negative – hence PEAK have created a game that could well encourage a habit that could ever so slightly nudge players towards a more positive outlook and greater mental health. So a better way to describe it is that improving working memory leads to benefits in a variety of other cognitive abilities collectively known as fluid intelligence, which is vital for (amongst other things) solving problems. However, allotting a finite period of time each day to game play can be extremely good for your brain – so long as you play the right sort of games. All I’m saying is that the proverbial jury is out regarding the putative efficacy of brain training – we must wait until more evidence has been gathered before potentially throwing the brain-train-baby out with the bathwater.
If they are better able to pay attention to and ultimately recall verbal instructions, in an environment containing a cacophony of visual and acoustic distractions, then the benefits from brain training may actually help them in real life.
Whatever you want to call it, the bottom line is: enhancing these mental abilities leads to benefits at school, work and play. To ensure participants stay with the program to the very end I would incentivise the much more intense training regime with cash rewards e.g.
49 different possible locations for each consecutive disc illumination is sooo much harder to retain in working memory, before reproducing the patter, than just the 4 quadrants of Simon.
I would dish out 10,000 Nintendo DS consoles to individuals who would benefit most from the alleged cognitive improvements that are expected to occur – the chronically unemployed perhaps.
That way, whether or not any improvements in cognitive function was detected, any improvement in the employment status of these 10,000 compared to a control group of another randomly selected 10,000 (who have also been receiving job seekers allowance for a prolonged period), would give Nintendo a possible second bite of the cherry by demonstrating a generic improvement in motivation levels and the power to benefit society as a whole. In addition to the milestone incentives, if they did look to keep unemployed hands and minds busy, it might also help to improve brain training dedication by dangling a carrot over the “high score leader board” – whereby those that achieve the best scores overall could be given paid work experience in a role that utilises the skills tapped by each specific game.



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