'Brain training' Boost Might Just Be 'Placebo Effect', Study Finds

Study participants who thought they were participating in an experiment regarding cognitive training had IQ increases of five to 10 points. ANDRZEJ WOJCICKI/GETTY IMAGES

Hold on a minute before you begin that brain-training game. It might not help you get any smarter. The results of a new study suggests that any increase in IQ after taking part in brain-power games and exercises may simply result from the placebo effect — and is likely temporary. The results were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Researchers at George Mason University recruited 50 people for a one-hour study on brain training via two different flyers. One flyer simply asked for participants without giving any details regarding the study. The other specifically requested people for a "Brain Training & Cognitive Enhancement" study. Both groups were given an IQ test followed by an hour of brain training. The next day, they were given another IQ test. The people who volunteered for the unnamed study had no change in their IQ. But those who thought they were participating in an experiment regarding cognitive training had IQ increases of five to 10 points afterward.

Cyrus Foroughi, the lead researcher and a doctoral student in George Mason's department of psychology, said in U.S. News & World Report that the results reveal "very strong evidence that placebo effects can lead to positive outcomes, as opposed to the training leading to positive outcomes."

Foroughi wasn't sure why study participants' IQ scores improved at all. He told U.S. News that it might have been because the students felt more motivated or confident when taking the follow-up tests after having been told that they'd received brain training.

With online brain-training programs such as Lumosity and NeuroNation hinting their products can do things like improve memory and cognitive function or even prevent Alzheimer's, it's important for cognitive-training researchers to step back and consider the possibility of the placebo effect at work, the scientists wrote in their study abstract.

"Many commercial brain-training websites make explicit claims about the effectiveness of their training that are not currently supported by many in the scientific community," the study authors concluded. "Consistent with that concern, one of the largest brain-training companies in the world agreed in January 2016 to pay a $2 million fine to the Federal Trade Commission [FTC] for deceptive advertising about the benefits of their programs."

That unnamed company was Lumos Labs, creators of Lumosity brain games. "Lumosity preyed on consumers' fears about age-related cognitive decline, suggesting their games could stave off memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer's disease," Jessica Rich, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a press statement. "But Lumosity simply did not have the science to back up its ads." (Lumosity has since toned down its claims but other companies continue to make them.)

While some people may be dismayed at these findings that the placebo effect might be behind any brain gains, the news isn't necessarily bad. If we can boost our brain power temporarily simply by believing we're getting smarter, that knowledge might be a gift.