The term cognitive training (also called brain fitness) reflects a hypothesis that cognitive abilities can be maintained or improved by exercising the brain, in analogy to the way physical fitness is improved by exercising the body. Although there is strong evidence that aspects of brain structure remain plastic throughout life, and that high levels of mental activity are associated with reduced risks of age-related dementia, scientific support for the concept of "brain fitness" is limited. The term is virtually never used in the scientific literature, but is commonly used in the context of self-help books and commercial products. It first came into play in the 1980s, and appeared in the titles of self-help books in 1989 and 1990.
Brain fitness is the capacity of a person to meet the various cognitive demands of life. It is evident in an ability to assimilate information, comprehend relationships, and develop reasonable conclusions and plans. Brain fitness can be developed by formal education, being actively mentally engaged in life, continuing to learn, and exercises designed to challenge cognitive skills. Healthy lifestyle habits including mental stimulation, physical exercise, good nutrition, stress management, and sleep can improve brain fitness. On the other hand, chronic stress, anxiety, depression, aging, air pollution, decreasing estrogen, excess oxytocin, and prolonged cortisol can decrease brain fitness as well as general health.
A significant issue in brain fitness work has been establishing that brain training exercises have impacts on brain function that exist outside the context of the training task.
Other studies, however, have looked at changes in tests of everyday function that occur after brain-based training. In a review of these studies, the following significant effects were noted. Improvements on speed of processing training tests were related to improvements in the Timed Instrumental Activities of Daily Living test (TIADL). Evidence of ceiling effects were also noted, indicating that subjects who were further below normal at the beginning of training had the largest expected gains. Further, the effect sizes may be related to customizing the training difficulty to the performance level of the trainee. Subjects trained with one training strategy, the Useful Field of View test (UFOV), showed significant improvements in an on-the-road driving test designed to evaluate driver response during potential dangerous situations. Specifically, subjects trained with UFOV made fewer dangerous maneuvers after training. In another study, the researchers have found that action video game experience is shown to improve trainees’ probabilistic inference. These results were established both in visual and auditory tasks, indicating generalization across modalities. In a study performed with air force flight cadets, it was shown that training addressing attention control processes yielded significant transfer of skills from the training environment to actual flight.
Lately, brain training games have been actively marketed as a "magic bullet" for Alzheimer's and Dementia. While there are few studies showing effectiveness of brain training for older adults, it has to be noted that many brain training games are purely commercial and have no scientific footing. To address growing public concerns with regard to aggressive online marketing of brain games to older population, a group of neuroscientists published a letter warning the general public that there is a lack of research showing effectiveness of brain games in elderly. Authors of this letter suggest that many popular computerized training programs are not very effective, and some other interventions, such intense physical exercise, may have greater benefits. However, recent work shows that brain speed training, specifically, led to a 33% decreased risk of dementia onset. Dr. Jerri Edwards, the principal investigator of this work, responded to the consensus letter with "I'm sick of our studies being ignored." With regard to research studies supporting benefits of brain training games for older adults, there is a strong evidence that participants transfer of skills to real life activities is limited to the cognitive domains of the trained task.
Another recent market for "brain training" services is children who are not meeting academic expectations in school. Students' performance on standardized norm-reference tests of cognitive abilities (e.g., Woodcock-Johnson Test of Cognitive Ability - IV) serve as a guide to determine which cognitive processes are relative strengths and weaknesses. For a description of these processes, see Cattell–Horn–Carroll theory. A pre-training test provides both data on proposed weaknesses in need of training and a baseline measurement to compare performance on post-training administrations of the test. The assumption is that identifying and training a weaker cognitive process will result in generalizable improvements to academic performance. Cognitive training takes an analogue form of the skill performed on the test, and predictably does improve performance on that discrete skill in post-test measures. There is currently no evidence that this improvement in these discrete, trained skills generalizes to better performance on higher order, more complex intellectual or academic skills.
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