Young adults did not appear to sharpen their decision-making skills after using the online brain-training program Lumosity, a new study reports.
A group of study participants aged 18 to 35 who received intense Lumosity training five times a week for 10 weeks did not show any more improvement in memory and reasoning (“cognitive”) skills than people who spent the same amount of time playing online video games, the researchers found.
The Lumosity trainees also did not show any reduction in impulsive or risky decision-making compared to the “control” groups, said study author Caryn Lerman. She is vice dean for strategic initiatives with the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.
“We found, contrary to our expectations, that there were no advantages for commercial cognitive training relative to the other groups in any of the outcomes we examined,” Lerman said. “All groups changed in a relatively equivalent manner.”
The benefits of Lumosity have been hotly debated. Last year, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission fined the program’s creator, Lumos Labs, $2 million for deceptive and unfounded claims that it could help people perform better at work or school, and reduce or delay age-related decline in mental capacity.
Lumos Labs said in a statement that they supported the new study through its research network that provides qualified researchers free access to both the training program and other tools.
However, Lumos Labs pointed out that the study mainly focused on whether Lumosity training would make young adults less likely to engage in risky habits, such as smoking or overeating.
While calling this a “novel approach,” the company added that “it’s a giant leap to suggest this study proves cognitive training is ‘no better than video games at improving brain function.'”
“There remain many open questions in the field — how, why, and in what circumstances cognitive training is efficacious — and so painting in such broad strokes potentially undermines this important, ongoing research area,” the company said.
But the researchers noted that previous studies have shown that people with stronger reasoning abilities tend to make less-impulsive choices. Further, the set of structures in the brain most closely linked to improved decision-making have been associated with the type of brain-training provided by Lumosity, the study authors added.
To see whether brain training could help people make better choices, the research team assigned 64 healthy young adults to follow the Lumosity regimen, which involves 30 minutes of training most days of the week. Another group of 64 people were asked to play video games.
The team focused on young adults because “the brain is more susceptible to change at younger ages,” Lerman said.
Participants underwent two batteries of tests — before and after — to assess their decision-making and reasoning abilities. During the tests, the researchers monitored their brain activity using MRI scans.
The investigators found that the training did not produce any significant differences in brain activity and decision-making between the Lumosity group and the control group.
In addition, Lumosity trainees didn’t do any better on tests of general memory and reasoning skills than the people playing video games, the researchers said. A third group that didn’t receive either Lumosity training or play video games also showed the same level of improvement as the first two groups.
“Considering that even the people who had no training at all showed similar improvement in cognitive performance, that suggested to us that any benefits that we observed on the other measures were really just due to the effects of practicing the assessments, and not due to the training itself,” Lerman said.
Another expert explained it this way.
People who engage in brain-training exercises tend to get better at working the specific sort of puzzles presented by the programs, but those skills don’t necessarily transfer to an overall improvement in a person’s mental capacity, said Walter Boot, an associate professor of psychology with Florida State University.
“As we gain experience with these games, we learn very specific things about how to be good at these games, and that seems to be how learning works,” Boot said. “This study seems to confirm that the learning that takes place in these games is very specific to those games.”
Study lead author Joseph Kable agreed, comparing it to a person training as a runner who becomes no better at bicycling. Even though both activities involve aerobic exercise, the skills do not cross over perfectly.
“Like with physical activity, they do get better at the exact things they practice,” Kable, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, said of Lumosity users. “But they don’t improve on other activities for which they don’t practice.”
The possibility remains that older people with declining mental abilities might receive some benefit from programs like Lumosity, Lerman and Kable added.
“If you work with people with more challenges in their cognitive function, as we see with aging, there may be more room for improvement, so we might see greater effects,” Lerman said.
The findings were published July 10 in the Journal of Neuroscience.
For more on brain-training programs, visit the Association for Psychological Science.