Brain Training

"Neuroplasticity" refers to the ability of the brain to reshape itself and to adapt to changes. This is, essentially, what learning is, but the term encompasses much more than that. For example, if the brain is damaged, such as by a stroke or head trauma, it has the ability to restructure and redesign itself so that the operational parts are able to partly take over the functioning of the damaged areas. This isn’t always perfect—there’s only so much real estate available, and the remapped parts have to perform their original functions as well—but it does happen, which is why stroke and traumatic brain injury is survivable in the first place.

Several companies sell "brain training" programs that are said to enhance neuroplasticity, but the evidence in favor of this is mixed at best. These programs take the form of games, which challenge and develop pattern recognition, memory, attention span, and other cognitive functions. However, there is little evidence these techniques have a significant effect in people who don’t have some kind of deficit to begin with. In fact, according to a recent study, the games are very effective mostly at improving performance on the games themselves—the more practice someone gets at playing a game, the better they are at that, but not at the tasks on which the game supposedly improves performance.

That’s not to say it’s entirely useless, however. Baseball players who completed a game designed specifically to enhance vision did show improvement in vision, and, correspondingly in playing baseball. At higher levels, baseball players tend to have significantly better levels of visual acuity than most people, since it’s a major component of the game. The trained players did nearly 5 percent better at the plate and scored far more runs than controls.

Training can also be useful for children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The usual treatment for ADHD is stimulant medications, but doctors and parents can be reluctant to prescribe such medications long-term. Neurofeedback games—which directly reward focus and concentration—and cognitive training games have even investigated as possible alternatives. A study earlier this year found a slight improvement for students who received cognitive training, and dramatic improvement for those who had gone through the neurofeedback therapy. In these cases, they were able to generalize the cognitive skills, sing them in the classroom and elsewhere as well as in the lab.

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