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expert reaction to new brain training app to improve concentration

Research published in Frontiers in Behavioural Neuroscience demonstrates that cognitive training with a dedicated app is effective in enhancing attention in young adults.

Dame Til Wykes, Vice Dean Psychology and Systems Sciences and Professor of Clinical Psychology and Rehabilitation, Institute of Psychiatry Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College London (IoPPN), said:

“Although it is generally accepted that apps are beneficial, high quality scientific evidence of benefit is scarce. This research is therefore welcome but it does only show benefits on another computer test not on real life. Does it really improve handling your emails and for how long?

“The benefits seem to be limited to a computer test and only with supervised app use. It may be more beneficial to spend the 8 hours a month on other activities like going for a walk or the gym where there is plenty of evidence of cognitive and other health benefits.”

Dr Ashok Jansari, Senior Lecturer in Cognitive Neuropsychology, Goldsmiths, University of London, said:

“The study by the team at the Cambridge Department of Psychiatry addresses a very important issue in modern society brought on by the ever-increasing number of tasks that we need to juggle in daily life which is thought to result in decreased ability to concentrate and difficulties in ‘staying on task’ in everyday life. The study reported by this world-leading research group has been run robustly and evaluated the positive benefits of using a game-like app called Decoder on a well-established laboratory task known to be related to sustaining attention. Relative to another less engaging computer activity or no ‘intervention’, playing Decoder resulted in improvements on the laboratory task. Further, this improvement in sustained attention did not have a detrimental effect on a task measuring the ability to switch attention.

“The study is well conducted and the results are promising. However, there are a number of limitations that need to be borne in mind. One of the most important of these is that there is a lack of ‘ecological validity’ in any of the measures. In the fields of neuroscience and neuropsychology, a major issue has become how well results from carefully constructed laboratory-based tasks relate to everyday behaviour. While the study clearly shows a benefit of playing Decoder on a laboratory-based measure of sustained attention, we have no idea of how this relates to sustaining attention on everyday tasks which the study is ultimately aiming to improve. Further, an important issue that needs to be addressed is how long-lasting these effects are. Does one have to keep playing Decoder to improve sustained attention and if one stops, does that result in returning to previous levels of poorer attention? Given the plethora of brain-training systems on the market despite the lack of evidence for generalisability to everyday behaviour, and indeed even lawsuits for false advertising (as happened in the $2 million successful lawsuit by the US Federal Trade Commission against the brain-training game Luminosity in 2016) it is vitally important that researchers address these issues if their aim is for the general public to invest in apps for real-world benefits. Finally, while the paper itself refers to the attentional difficulties experienced by individuals with ADHD as well as the difficulties of pharmacological interventions, there is quite a gap between the complex cognitive difficulties of such individuals and those experienced by the average busy healthy young person of the type that participated in this study. Therefore, further research is needed to demonstrate whether first, Decoder has any benefits beyond standard laboratory measures of attention and second, whether there is any implication if any for its impact on individuals with very complex clinical attentional disorders such as ADHD.”

Prof Thom Baguley, Professor of Experimental Psychology, Nottingham Trent University, said:

“The press release is broadly accurate in its description of the study, but over simplistic in its analysis of the context. There isn’t really good evidence that young people today have more difficulty focusing attention than those of previous generations.

“This is a generally well-conducted small study of the short-term effects of brain training using a new iPad game. The sample size is moderate (25 per group) and they use an active control condition (a Bingo game) which is good practice. As multiple measures are used this makes it easier to detect some effect of the intervention and the authors correct for comparisons between groups but not for the number of measures. Ideally one would pre-register the choice of primary measure and any corrections for multiple measures.

“The game technology is largely iterative in terms development when compared to other apps  – the main innovation appears to be in terms of creating a game that is entertaining and motivates continued play rather than in terms of the underlying science.

“The findings are broadly in line with existing evidence on how brain training apps may impact performance. Brain training can boost performance in the short to medium term on tasks that are relatively similar to the original training. Here the main test and the Decoder game appear to share underlying similarities. There is also some overlap with the active control task, but their data also show that the active control is less motivating or engaging than the Decoder game.

“It is difficulty to fully control differences in motivation and engagement between conditions rather than specific effects of cognitive training. It is also unknown whether any gains in concentration can be sustained long-term or generalise to other tasks.

“As the study looked only at healthy volunteers and there isn’t sufficient evidence as yet to link these findings to treatment of ADHD.

“To date there is no good evidence that brain training can produce long-term gains that would have a material and positive impact on everyday life, but it is unlikely to be harmful based on what we do know.”

‘Improvements in attention following cognitive training with the novel ‘Decoder’ game on an iPad’ by George Savulich et al. was published in Frontiers in Behavioural Neuroscience at 00:01 UK time on Monday 21st January.

Declared interests

Professor Dame Til Wykes: Development of online therapy for schizophrenia – CIRCuiTS

Dr Ashok Jansari: No conflicts of interest.

Prof Thom Baguley: No conflicts of interest.


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