From Our 2011 Archives

Brain-Training Games May Give Kids an Achievement Edge

Brain Training Improves Abstract Reasoning and Problem-Solving Ability

By Denise Mann
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

June 15, 2011 -- Brain-training video games that boost kids' working memory may help improve their abstract reasoning and problem-solving abilities.

Working memory refers to the brain's ability to store and use information and is essential for planning or problem solving as well as school tasks such as reading comprehension and math. Priming the working memory with brain-training games may also have spillover benefits on abstract reasoning and problem solving, so-called fluid intelligence, according to the study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Of 62 elementary and middle-school children, those who trained five times a week for one month on a computerized task that engaged their working memory showed marked improvements in tasks related to working memory, compared with their peers who practiced general knowledge and vocabulary tasks.

Only those kids who improved in the brain-training exercises showed dividends in fluid intelligence tasks such as abstract reasoning and problem solving. This is known as a transfer effect, and these improvements lasted even after a three-month break from brain training.

Whether or not these gains will translate into higher standardized test scores or admissions to certain academically rigorous and prestigious schools is not known, says lead author Susanne M. Jaeggi, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

"Both working memory capacity and fluid intelligence are malleable with experience and training," she says in an email. "However, you have to train, and you have to train well," she says.

"Effects don't come for free," she says. "There is effort involved just as in physical training: You need to run and not just walk in order to improve your fitness level," she says.

The brain training task that primed working memory involved presenting a series of visual and/or auditory cues and asking the student to respond if that cue has occurred one time back, for starters. The number of "times back" increases with each correct answer. The video game themes included outer space, haunted castles, and pirate ships, and background stories were linked to these themes to provide context and maximize motivation. Students also earned points that could be redeemed for prizes such as pencils and stickers for scoring well.

Working Memory in Action

Working memory has an important role in many scholastic activities, she says.

"Consider several typical school activities: mentally multiplying 34x27, reading a social studies textbook chapter, or mentally animating a diagrammatic representation of the circulatory system. Each of these activities is highly demanding of working memory because it requires multiple processing steps and temporarily keeping in mind the intermediate results of these steps," she says. "If information is lost during this process due to working memory limitations, then the task cannot be completed," she says.

What's more, "it has been shown that working memory is even better at predicting scholastic achievement than measures of intelligence," she says. "Deficits in working memory are considered as the primary source of cognitive impairment in numerous special needs populations ranging from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to mathematics disability."

"Children with lower working memory capacity often forget teacher instructions, have difficulties to stay on track with classroom tasks, and are easily distracted," she says.

"Very little is known about cognitive training in kids," says neuropsychologist Mark Mapstone, PhD, University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, N.Y. "This study is attempting to understand the parameters to get that transferrable effect and attempting to tap into motivational aspects of training."

"It is not just that you train that matters, but how you train and why you train," he says.

"This research study offers encouraging results that children who improve in cognitive tasks that train working memory are then better able to accurately utilize their underlying intellectual abilities," says Joseph A. Sandford, PhD, president of BrainTrain Inc., a cognitive training software development company based in Richmond, Va.

"By enhancing test taking skills, these types of improvements can result in higher IQ test scores and better academic performance," he says in a statement.

"Using proper coaching and educational techniques, any potential risk, such as a lowering of self-esteem due to the failure to succeed in the training task, can be minimized or completely avoided," he says. "For children who are impaired in their attentional or cognitive functioning, it can be critically important to improve their ability to attend and think actively."

Should Parents Buy Into Brain Training?

Ron Taffel, PhD, a New York-based child psychologist and the author of several books on parenting, including Childhood Unbound, says that brain training in kids touches on some bigger parenting issues. Most parents want to give their child every possible advantage, but today some may be pushing too hard, too early.

Before thinking about brain training, tutoring, or other fast-tracking methods, "you need to have an idea of who your child is and how much pressure they can and should take," he says.

"You really need to be thinking about matching your child with a potential school or learning environment," he said. "We need to parent with our eyes wide open and raise the child in front of you, not the one you wish you had," he says.

SOURCES: Jaeggi, S. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2011.Ron Taffel, PhD, child psychologist, New York.Mark Mapstone, PhD, Neuropsychologist University of Rochester Medical Center, Rochester, N.Y.Susanne M. Jaeggi, PhD, psychologist, University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.Joseph A. Sandford, PhD, president, BrainTrain Inc., Richmond, Va. ©2011 WebMD, LLC. All Rights Reserved.