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Owen AM, Hampshire A, Grahn JA, Stenton R, Dajani S, Burns AS, Howard RJ, Ballard CG. Putting brain training to the test. Nature . 2010 Jun 10 ; 465(7299):775-8. PubMed Abstract

Comments on Paper and Primary News
Primary News: Brain Training Falls Short in Big Online Experiment

Comment by:  Robert Bilder, SRF Advisor (Disclosure)
Submitted 27 April 2010 Posted 27 April 2010

It’s wonderful to see this study in Nature, for it draws international attention to extremely important issues, including the degree to which cognitive training may yield generalizable effects, and to the amazing potential power of Web-based technologies to engage tens of thousands of individuals in behavioral research. It seems likely—and unfortunate—that for much of the world, the “take-home” message will be that all this “brain training” is bunk.

For me, the most exciting aspect of the study is that it was done at all. The basic design (engaging a TV audience to register for online experiments) is ingenious and indicates the awesome potential to use media for “good instead of evil.” Are there any investigators out there who would not be happy to recruit 52,617 research participants (presumably within the course of a single TV season)? Of course, this approach yielded only 11,430 people who completed the protocol (still sounds pretty good to me, especially since this reflects roughly 279,692 sessions completed). For those of us who struggle for...  Read more

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Primary News: Brain Training Falls Short in Big Online Experiment

Comment by:  Philip Harvey
Submitted 27 April 2010 Posted 27 April 2010

The paper from Owen et al. reports that a sample of community dwellers recruited to participate in a cognitive remediation study did not improve their cognitive performance except on the tasks on which they trained. While the results of cognitive remediation studies in schizophrenia have been inconsistent, the results of this study are particularly difficult to interpret, for several reasons:

1. Baseline performance on the "benchmarking" assessment does not appear to be adjusted for age, education, and other demographic predictive factors. As a result, we do not know if the participants even had room to improve from baseline. It is possible that the volunteers in this study were very high performers at baseline and could not improve. Furthermore, if they are, in fact, high performers, their performance and the lack of any improvements with treatment may be irrelevant to poor performers.

2. There is no way to know if the research participants who completed the baseline and endpoint assessments were the same ones who completed the training. Without this control, which...  Read more

View all comments by Philip Harvey

Primary News: Brain Training Falls Short in Big Online Experiment

Comment by:  Terry Goldberg
Submitted 7 May 2010 Posted 7 May 2010

This important paper by Owen and colleagues reads like a cautionary tale. In a Web-based study of over 11,000 presumptively healthy individuals, neither of two different types of cognitive training resulted in transfer of improvement to a reasoning task or to several well-validated cognitive tasks from the Cambridge Neuropsychological Test Automated Battery (CANTAB). I would like to point out three issues with the study.

First, the amount of training that individuals received at their own behest differed greatly. While the authors found no correlation between the number of training sessions and performance improvement or lack thereof, it is nevertheless possible that there is some critical threshold, either in number of sessions or, more importantly, time spent in sessions (not noted in the paper), that must be reached before transfer can occur. In other words, the relationship between training and transfer may be nonlinear and perhaps sigmoidal.

Second, it is possible that scores on some of...  Read more

View all comments by Terry Goldberg

Primary News: Brain Training Falls Short in Big Online Experiment

Comment by:  Angus MacDonald, SRF Advisor
Submitted 11 May 2010 Posted 11 May 2010

Owen and colleagues are to be commended for drawing attention to the great constraint of cognitive training—that is, the potential for improvements on only the restricted set of abilities that were trained.

This has been the bugbear of cognitive training for a long time. Short story with a purpose: In 2001, when I raved about the remarkable results of Klingberg (later published as Olesen et al., 2004) to John Anderson, an esteemed cognitive psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University, he scoffed at the possibility that Klingberg's training might have led to improvements on Raven's Matrices, a measure of generalized intelligence. "People have been looking into this for a century. If working memory training improved intelligence, schools would be filled with memory training courses rather than math and language courses," he said (or something to that effect). This issue of training and generalization is not new, and the results of Owen and colleagues are consistent with a large body of twentieth-century research.

Owen,...  Read more

View all comments by Angus MacDonald
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