Apps & games for cognitive fitness: A no brainer?

Are claims of  apps offering “workout for the brain” just interesting sales pitches, or are they actually indicative of pre-emptive steps we can take to stave off cognitive decline?

Tis the season of New Year's Resolutions, of regrets of habits past and for the crafting of plans laden with good intentions for the year ahead. For many it’s all about shedding the five to ten that were added on as a result of holiday season merrymaking.  But what about fitness from the neck up, in particular those ‘personal trainers for the brain’ we see heavily advertised, particularly online?

The idea of a workout for the brain is definitely an appealing one, and the ‘you’ve got a problem/we’ve got a solution’ marketing such services tend to use makes investing in brain fitness products seem like an easy decision. You play some games, you sharpen your brain, what’s not to like?

A slowing and dulling of mental functions as we age -- sometimes euphemistically referred to as “senior moments" -- is a real concern. 15% of Canadians over the age of 65 are currently reported to be living with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias, and that number could double by 2031. For these reasons the Federal Government’s Canadian Institutes of Health Research states that  “neurodegenerative diseases that cause cognitive impairment are among the most feared health conditions of the aging population.”

That mental degeneration is a serious matter, and one on the rise, is not in doubt. But what can we do about it? Could the answer be the use of online services and apps that claim to sharpen the brain, as we do things like wait in line at the supermarket, ride the subway, or kill time during commercial breaks? Is there an app for that?

Different Business Models

Search on the word ‘brain’ in the iTunes store and you’ll be greeted by a long list of suitors, all ready to provide gymnastics routines for your grey matter. Brain Games, BrainTrainer, BrainSpa, BrainTivity, Brainiversity, BrainMetrix, BrainBox, BrainBlox – these are just a selection of the hundreds of app or web-based products that want to whip your mental functions into shape with puzzles, games, and generally fast twitch challenges.

There are three general business models on the other end of these games. Some offer the basics for free, with in-app purchases that optimize game play made available as one advances through on screen exercises.

Others are plain old free, with a business model predicated on the hope of amassing a large number of users and leveraging the data collected for marketing purposes or partnerships.

Still other apps carry a nominal fee of about one dollar. That’s the low cost end of the market. At the higher end are products such as Lumosity, which offers basic features free of charge and upsells with premium subscriptions that come with additional games and metrics and carry a monthly fee of $14.95. At present Lumosity, the most popular of the brain training games, has about 50 million paying subscribers.

Neuroplasticity What ?!

The principle behind all of these brain-training games is neuroplasticity, defined in a Scientific American article on the topic as ”the brain’s ability to change itself by remodeling nerve cell connections after experience.” In other words, if we routinely give our brains new experiences, our brains will reward us by building new neural connections.

And neuroplasticity isn’t just new age wishful thinking, it’s a real science, through which physiological changes such as synaptic and dendritic growth have been observed and measured.  Neuroplasticity has shown to be responsible for recovery from certain illnesses or psychological trauma but according to Scientific American: “…no computerized brain fitness program has yet been proven to prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s disease or even to make brain cells any younger at a biological level.”

CBC’s Marketplace recently did an investigative report on brain games and worked with Dr. Adrian Owen of the Cognitive Neuroscience and Imaging at The Brain and Mind Institute at London, Ontario’s Western University.

Dr. Owen and his team ran an experiment to test the claims made by Lumosity, the leading product in the area. A group of 54 people were put through 13 cognitive tests, and were measured before and after using the product, on tasks such as planning, attention, executive function, and reasoning. Owen reported that there were no “…no statistical differences, no trends, not even a hint of an effect” and that no independent scientific evidence exists to support such claims.”

So what are we accomplishing, if anything, when playing these games? The consensus of the medical community is that we get better at playing the games themselves, but that after a while the brain recognizes such tasks as routine, rather than something that builds any significant cranial capacity, and adjusts itself accordingly and returns to a baseline level.

Furthermore, stimulating environments, a healthy diet, regular exercise, restful sleep, stress management, and social contact are, until the mystery of cognitive decline is fully unlocked, believed to be as effective as any treatment regime currently available.

On January 1st 2016, Lumosity settled with the Federal Trade Commission in the U.S., agreeing to pay a $2 million fine for what were found to be deceptive advertising practices.

Leora Kornfeld
So far in life, Leora has been a record store clerk, a CBC radio host, a Harvard Business School case writer, a blogger and a crossword puzzle clue. Currently she’s a media and technology consultant, working with clients in the US and Canada.
Read Bio