How to Tell When Neuroscience-Based Programmes are Well-Developed, by Martha Burns, Ph.D

I am sure you have noticed that there are many technology programmes out there that claim to “build,” or improve your brain function. Every week I receive emails from companies advertising brain games that promise to train attention and memory skills. You may have wondered, do “brain games” really work? A recent article in The New York Times entitled “Do Brain Workouts Work? Science Isn’t Sure,” actually asked that very question as well.
How would a memory brain game that I purchase from a website be different from a card or board game like “Concentration”? How is an attention game different or better than the concentration required to read a good book or play a card game that requires focused and sustained attention, to cards played or discarded each round? Do good old fashioned paper pencil activities like crossword puzzles help with brain function? How about Bridge or Chess? Wouldn’t any challenging video game help us with attention if we had to stay focused for long periods of time to get to a new level?

The answers to the above questions are all “yes, to some degree.” The brain is the only organ of our body that changes each day based on our experiences. And if we do any activities that challenge memory or attention for extended periods of time it will likely be beneficial for improving those capacities. If I play bridge, for example, many hours a week, I will likely get better at the game and boost my short term (working) memory as well. But, neuroscientists who study brain plasticity, the way the brain changes with stimulation (or lack of stimulation), have determined there are ways to enhance the beneficial effects of brain exercises to maximize the efficiency and positive outcomes so that children or adults can specifically target some capacities over others in a short period of time. And, controlled research is showing these targeted exercises have benefits on other brain capacities as well.

So, for example, researchers have shown that when seven year olds do a simple computer-based exercise that targets working memory for just a few minutes a day for a few consecutive weeks they show improved working memory (we would expect that) but also improved reading comprehension compared with children in their classrooms who received reading instruction but did not do the working memory activities (Loosli, 2012). Or, aging adults in their 70’s who did computer-based processing speed exercises a few minutes a day for six consecutive weeks so they could do things like react faster when driving showed improvements in processing speed (again we would expect that) but also in memory when compared to adults who did other exercises but not the processing speed exercises, and the improvements lasted for ten years without doing additional exercises (Rebok, 2014).

The question, then, is what are the critical active ingredients neuroscientists have found that need to be “built-in” so brain exercises effectively build targeted skills compared to the benefits we get from just using our “noggin” in everyday activities? And, more important, how is a parent or consumer to get through all the hype and determine which brain exercises have the important design features shown to be effective?

Fortunately, neuroscientists who have thoroughly researched this have published excellent summaries in respected scientific journals. Below are the key elements to look for in brain exercises:

  1. High & low – Exercises are most effective when they include challenging high-level tasks (like exercises that require a high degree of speed and accuracy) while also including low-level exercises that improve our ability to perceive similar sounds or images more distinctly (Ahissar et el, 2009). We might call this the Sherlock Holmes effect – you must see the details clearly to solve difficult problems.
  2. Adaptability – Exercises should increase or decrease in difficulty based on how you perform so they continuously adapt to your skill level (Roelfsema, 2010).
  3. Highly intensive training schedules – The relevant ‘skills’ must be identified, isolated, then practiced through hundreds if not thousands of trials on an intensive (ie, quasi-daily) schedule (Roelfsema, 2010).
  4. Attention grabbing – In order to maximise enduring plastic changes in the cortex, the learner must attend to each trial or learning event on a trial-by-trial basis.
  5. Timely rewards – A very high proportion of the learning trials must be rewarded immediately (rather than at the end of a block of trials or on a trial-and-error basis) (Roelfsema, 2010).

So, parents may ask, ”This sounds fine for making our average brains work better but what about my child who has been diagnosed with a learning disability or other issues like autism spectrum disorder?” According to Ahissar et al. (2009), for our children (or adults) with learning issues, distortions or limitations at any level will create bottlenecks for learning and the changes we want from brain exercises. But, according to the authors, if the exercises have sufficient intensity and duration on specific sets of activities that focus on lower-level (perceptual) and middle-level stimuli (attention, memory and language) tasks, brain changes will enhance higher level skills and learning will be easier and more advanced.

So for parents, or anyone wanting to understand which brain exercises are worth the investment of valuable time and money, a rule of thumb would be to avoid products that advertise themselves as “brain games” – because that is what they probably are. Rather, seek out programmes or products that contain “exercises” that focus on specific high and low level skills like language, reading, memory and attention, and those who have research evidence to support their value when used by children like yours.


Ahissar, M., Nahum, M., Nelken, I., & Hochstein, S. (2009). Reverse hierarchies and sensory learning, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 364, 285–299.doi: 10.1098/rstb.2008.0253

Loosli, S.V., Buschkuehl, M., Perrig, W.J., & Jaeggi, S.M. (2012). Working memory training improves reading processes in typically developing children,Child Neuropsychology, 18, 62-78. doi: 10.1080/09297049.2011.575772

Rebok, G.W., Ball, K., Guey, L.T., Jones, R.N., Kim, H.Y., King, J.W., . . . Willis, S.L. (2014). Ten-Year Effects of the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly Cognitive Training Trial on Cognition and Everyday Functioning in Older Adults, Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 62, 16-24. doi: 10.1111/jgs.12607

Roelfsema, P.R., van Ooyen, A., & Watanabe, T. (2010). Perceptual learning rules based on reinforcers and attention, Trends in Cognitive Science, 14, 64–71.doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2009.11.005

Vinogradav, S., Fisher, M., & de Villers-Sidani, E. (2012). Cognitive Training for Impaired Neural Systems in Neuropsychiatric Illness,Neuropsychopharmacology Reviews, 37, 43–76. doi: 10.1038/npp.2011.251