George Mason University: Benefits From Brain-Training Apps Due to Placebo Effect, Study Finds

George Mason University: Benefits From Brain-Training Apps Due to Placebo Effect, Study Finds

Brain-training programs like Lumosity or NeuroNation have shown their worth in improving a person’s intellect in many studies. Now, a new study has found that some of the alleged benefits might be due to placebo effect.


Researchers said that if participants are aware that they are taking part in a brain-boosting study then their performance gets 5 to 10% better in the IQ tests than those who are not made aware of the possible benefits of the exercise.

Owing to which, it is being considered that placebo effects could result into positive outcomes. Study’s lead researcher Cyrus Foroughi from George Mason University, in Fairfax, said that by mentioning the above, they does not mean that brain-training programs do not offer any benefit. They would like to say that a placebo effect could add to the outcomes.

In the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers have recruited 50 participants with the help of two different fliers posted around a college campus. One flier clearly promoted a ‘Brain Training & Cognitive Enhancement’ study. In which it was mentioned that many studies have proven that working memory training can increase fluid intelligence.

The other flier did not mention any of such sorts. It simply offered research participation credit for those who took part in the study. Participants in both the groups took a follow-up IQ test. Those who were told about the brain benefits witnessed a five to 10 point increase in their score. Such a thing did not happen in the case of those who were not aware of the real motive of the study.

Foroughi said that they do not believe that improvement came with just one hour of study. Though the researchers do not have any idea as to how placebo effect could improve a person’s IQ score, Foroughi suspect that it might be due to the fact that participants become more motivated or feel more confident when taking up intelligence tests.

Lumos Labs Community Manager Sara Colvin has found the study to be interesting that highlights the importance of proper study design. Colvin also mentioned that the company has been working with researchers and others in brain-training industry to come up new guidelines for such researches to be carried out in future.

Dr. Adam Gazzaley, a prominent brain-training researcher, was of the view that the study has provided an important study finding that could help shape future studies.

There is no doubt that training programs can prove beneficial for brain health, but not much has been done to control for a potential placebo effect. Gazzaley from the University of California, San Francisco, said, “With careful development and high-level rigorous validation, we will see these tools emerge as powerful approaches to improve cognitive ability. But I agree that right now, with the data that’s out there, caution is certainly advised”.

Other measures to protect and improve intellect include exercise, eating a healthy diet, challenging brain with the help of games and puzzles, taking proper amount of sleep and managing stress. Foroughi mentioned that people who want to exercise their brain should do things that they really enjoy like crossword puzzle or Sudoku rather than getting poked through a brain-training program.

“The placebo effect occurs when a person’s belief in a treatment leads to an improvement in their condition even when the treatment is a sham. So powerful is the effect that drug trials traditionally include placebos to ensure any benefits of the drugs being tested are real. Cognitive scientist Cyrus Foroughi and colleagues at George Mason University in the US decided to test whether brain-training studies also fall prey to the placebo effect,” according to a news report published by Cosmos Magazine.

Foroughi and colleagues recruited university students using two different flyers. The first invited participants for a “brain training and cognitive enhancement” study, stating that “numerous studies have shown working memory training can increase fluid intelligence”. The second, non-suggestive flyer offered credit points for participation but didn’t state the study’s purpose. Participants completed an hour of cognitive training. Fluid intelligence was tested before, and then again on the day after training.

According to a story published on the topic by SMH News, “The benefits of brain and memory training could be all in the mind, nothing more than a placebo effect, finds a major study by American researchers. The results cast doubt on the booming billion dollar industry that has resulted in online training, apps and television shows, that tap into dark fears about ageing, and the promise of maintaining brain function. The researchers urge the brain training industry to “temper its claims” until more is known, and say most brain training websites make explicit claims that are not currently supported by research.”

The benefits of brain training have been promoted by a range of companies in Australia. They were also highlighted in the two part series by Todd Sampson, the non–executive chairman of communication company Leo Burnett, called Redesign My Brain. Mr Sampson is also a Fairfax board member. He was approached for a comment, but Fairfax was told he was out of the country and unavailable. Earlier this year, Lumosity, the largest brain training company in the world was fined US$2 million by the US Federal Trade Commission for deceptive advertising after exaggerating the claims of the efficacy of brain training.

A report published in Stat News revealed, “The former group of 25 people saw a 5-to-10-point IQ boost after playing the game; the latter showed no cognitive improvement. And that arrangement was not just hypothetical: After conducting their study, the George Mason researchers emailed academics who have published research on cognitive training and found that 17 of the 19 studies surveyed had recruited participants in a way that may have biased their outcome.”

But Gazzaley, an adviser to a startup that’s trying to get approval from the Food and Drug Administration for a “prescription” video game based on his prototype, is known for an unusually rigorous approach to game development. And he sees a bright side in the growing evidence that people’s expectations can influence their cognitive performance, so long as researchers measure and account for it in their study design. “We view the fact that people think that they can use a training program to improve themselves as a positive,” he said, “because it increases motivation and depth of engagement in the training.”

About Alexis Sostre

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