Far Transfer of Brain Training

by Guy McKhann, M.D.

November 6, 2016

This is a column from Dana's print publication, Brain in the News

I am returning to a subject that I have reviewed in previous columns: brain training. A recent NPR story summarizes of a much longer report by Daniel Simmons of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and six of his colleagues. This study and review of existing reports was precipitated by two conflicting statements in 2004: an open letter signed by 70 scientists objecting to the marketing claims being made by companies involved in brain training and a response from 120 scientists defending brain training.

With this incentive, Simmons and his colleagues reviewed more than 130 reports of brain games and other forms of cognitive training. The 83-page article, while lengthy, is worth reading if you are interested in this subject. It outlines many brain game reports, analyzes their methods and claims, and makes observations about these claims. Further, the authors conclude by suggesting how to improve studies in this area. There are several points from this article that I would like to emphasize.

This is a rapidly expanding and an increasingly lucrative area. The sales of brain training products are predicted to reach 3 to 3.5 billion—yes, billion—by 2020. That projection is not solely based on direct-to-consumer sales—about 50 percent involve supplier-groups that buy brain-training materials for their clients. Such groups include schools, retirement communities, and health providers. Not too long ago, I had a director of a local retirement community tell me that he was subscribing to a brain game provider for his clients. Why, I asked him. He said because his competitors had done so.

There are two big problems in this area: The first is the claims that companies are making about their products. They come very close to saying that their games can reverse the effects of aging on cognitive ability and/or the effects of a dementing illness such as Alzheimer’s disease. The marketers are very good at making partial promises and letting the recipient fill in the blanks. Fortunately, the Federal Trade Commission, the group that monitors advertising, caught on and recently fined the makers of Lumosity $2 million for false advertising. Other companies could be in line for similar legal trouble.

The second issue is in the nature of training. The terms used are “near transfer” and “far transfer.” The former is the spillover of training in a narrow area to closely related areas. This occurs quite regularly. For example, if you are training to return the ball in tennis, it might well help you in squash. You might also see some indirect effects that could help you in other sports: your conditioning might improve; you could become more limber.

But tennis training won’t make you a better swimmer or golfer. Those would be examples of far transfer. Simmons repeatedly gives examples where far transfer does not occur.

My colleague at Hopkins, George Rebok, suggests there is hope. He says that training programs have to be more broadly based, carried out for longer periods of time, and perhaps have some refresher sessions. Existing training programs are probably unwilling to change—they don’t want to admit that their golden calves are actually turkeys.