BBC Brain Training | Brain Test Britain

- Did Brain Test Britain Prove Anything?
- Find Out How Brain Training Can Work

BBC Brain Training | Brain Test Britain | Pop Quiz

BBC Brain Training | Brain Test Britain Plus Nature Equals What?

Select the most appropriate answer:

a) A well-researched, no nonsense brain training review

b) A landmark scientific refutation of brain training exercise

c) Largest study of well-researched brain exercise published by a respected journal

d) None of the above

It's a trick question of course. While it would seem that the BBC brain training reporting and fact-checking pedigree coupled with Nature magazine's reputation for publishing serious scientific findings would add up to something significant in the sphere of brain training science, here that is not so.

With Brain Test Britain the BBC brain training folks engaged scientists to design a battery of brain exercises to test the claim that such brain training can improve not just performance on the tasks but also general cognitive ability. The BBC brain training team then used its not inconsiderable media exposure to engage a very large number of brain training participants from the general public (11,400 or so - which is still only about .06% of the population of Britain) in the brain training study.

Here's the catch: The very premise of BBC brain training study ignored existing, well-respected research on the kinds of brain training that can result in transfer to general cognitive ability. In particular:

1. The BBC brain training was not frequent enough (3 days per week vs. 5 days per week in successful studies)

2. The BBC brain training sessions were not time-intensive enough (10 minutes vs. 30 minutes)

3. The BBC brain training tasks were varied instead of focusing on brain training that has previously shown transfer to general intellectual ability.

On average the participants in Brain Test Britain trained for about 250 minutes over the course of six weeks on a variety of brain exercises. In contrast, Mind Sparke Brain Fitness Pro's initial training period requires about double the brain training time over just four weeks and focuses on a single task. It's no wonder that the BBC brain training team found no transfer.

Dual n-back working memory training places a very specific demand on the trainee. It is not just a task that places demands on working memory, it is a task that requires committed, focused, single-minded attention for a minute at a time. Each session includes twenty such spans back to back.

Another interesting aspect of the Brain Test Britain methodology was in the BBC brain training team's measurement of general cognitive ability. The BBC brain training study used a generally available cognitive assessment battery from Cambridge Brain Sciences. (I'd encourage anyone interested to register and check out the tests. It's free.)

I went through the test battery, and found it to be a relatively poor measure of general cognitive ability. Every test is time-pressured (not that this is a bad thing per se, but in everyday life much of our cognitive processing permits us some luxury of time and thought; especially tough problems.) And although there's a matrix test, it's not a particularly inspired one. The two BBC brain training reasoning tests seem to be very poorly normalized with results not comparing well to established cognitive tests.

BBC Brain Training | Brain Test Britain
Peer Review from Dr. Elizabeth Zelinksi

A report from Dr. Elizabeth Zelinski addresses her methodological concerns about the BBC brain training study and makes some valuable points. You can read Dr. Zelinksi's full report of Brain Test Britain at Sharp Brains. In her post titled Scientific critique of BBC/ Nature Brain Training Experiment Dr. Zelinski draws attention to the participant dropout rate (52,617 participants registering and 11,430 completing) "In a clinical trial," she says, "such selective and high dropout rates would be considered very problematic." She also noted methodological concerns about the use of "span tests" to measure change, as span tests are "famously insensitive to change."

BBC Brain Training | Brain Test Britain
Peer Review from Amir Raz & Rose Golinski

Another peer response to the much-publicized Nature publication of the BBC brain training team's Brain Test Britain research:

'No gain from brain training' (Nature 464, 1111; 2010) deals a blow to adults who practice computerized brain games hoping to improve their mental functions and transfer their skills to other cognitive domains. Sweepingly suggesting that training effects do not transfer seems to generalise the present findings to other variants of cognitive exercises and cohorts, including children. This latter claim is surprising, however, not only because the authors tested no children but also because several independent studies have provided mounting evidence that cognitive training ­ for example of attention or working memory ­ can have significant and generalisable effects in paediatric populations. Several researchers, including Michael Posner of the University of Oregon and Torkel Klingberg of the Karolinska Institute, have independently provided compelling evidence that computerized training in early life is viable and transferable across untrained cognitive tasks. For example, findings from these and other developmental cognitive neuroscientists have shown that nascent training programs, when applied rigorously and in concert with a plausible brain theory, appear to improve psychological performance, including on tasks measuring working memory, complex reasoning, inhibition, and impulsivity in healthy preschoolers as well as in children and adolescents with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). As a case in point, one study showed that healthy 4- and 6-year old children, who trained on a 5-week attention training protocol, improved on measures of executive attention, non-verbal Intelligence Quotient (IQ), and signature brain waves as measured by scalp electrode recordings. At least in children, therefore, the prospect of computerized training is beguiling.

'Studies with adults have been less conclusive, but here too Klingberg and his colleagues, to name but one group, have provided data that are at odds with the recent Nature report. It is difficult to provide meaningful results without controlling for the multiple parameters that influence the efficacy of a given training program; these include length of session, frequency, context, baseline performance of participants, and other motivational factors. With hundreds of computerized training programs on the market, most with little or no scientific evidence to recommend them, it behoves us to make judicious claims. The innovative partnership of the BBC Lab UK with professional scientists provided over 11,000 data points, quasi-meticulous procedures, and the stentorian voice of Nature, but we suspect that this account hardly represents the magnum opus on computerized training.'

Posted on behalf of Amir Raz & Rose Golinski
Department of Psychiatry
McGill University
Montreal, QC, Canada

1 How to Increase IQ: "Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory" Susanne M. Jaeggi, Martin Buschkuehl, John Jonides, and Walter J. Perrig PNAS 10.1073/ pnas.0801268105.
2 IQ Increase measured using the standard Bochumer Matrizen IQ Test: BOMAT-Advanced-Short Version

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What is Brain Fitness Pro?
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