A boost for brain training: Lumosity can help lift ‘chemo fog,’ study finds

Brain training – that booming yet much-debated business – just got another feather in its cap.

In a study published in the peer-reviewed journal Clinical Breast Cancer, Stanford researchers demonstrated that breast cancer patients who had been treated with chemotherapy improved their cognitive function after using exercises developed by brain training startup Lumosity. Created by neuroscientists, Lumosity offers dozens of games (to paying subscribers around the world) that claim to improve their memory, attention and creativity.

In the last few years, several studies have demonstrated that up to 75 percent of cancer patients can experience cognitive impairment and mental dullness, that can last five years or longer, after undergoing chemotherapy.

But research led by Shelli Kesler, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford, found that breast cancer survivors who trained with Lumosity four times a week for 12 weeks significantly improved in measures of executive function, word finding and processing speed.

“For [breast cancer] patients, it suggests that this could be one possible avenue for helping to improve their cognitive function,” said Kesler, who did not accept money from Lumosity for the study. “Even if they’ve been suffering with this for years, they can still show improvement.”

Improving cognitive function has long been a subject of fascination among psychologists. But interest among academics and entrepreneurs seems to have intensified in the last decade. Since 2000, companies including Lumosity, Posit Science, Dakim and Cogmed have launched, promising to improve cognitive abilities like memory and attention through mental workouts. And they’ve not only attracted interest from investors, but eager consumers, including pro-active parents, aging adults and others looking to boost their brainpower.

Earlier this year, for example, Lumosity, which has raised more than $60 million, said its revenue had increased more than 100 percent each year since its launch.

But despite strong interest, scientists’ perspectives on cognitive training have been mixed. An often-referenced study in 2008 by psychologist Susan Jaeggi found that memory training increased intelligence and supported the notion that fluid intelligence can be improved.  But a later attempt to replicate those findings by psychologists at Georgia Tech found no increase cognitive improvement from brain training exercise. Other studies published in the past couple of months have supported and critiqued cognitive coaching.

“There’s a long history of people trying to raise intelligence and make people smarter,” said Douglass Detterman, a professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University. “And it usually ends in disappointment.”

Skeptics of cognitive training argue that while the exercises may help people improve on specific cognitive tests, they don’t necessarily improve general intelligence or lead to benefits that transfer to the real world. They also argue that in studies where there is a wait list control group (that doesn’t participate in any kind of additional mental activity) instead of an active control group (that is tasked with some kind of mental activity), cognitive benefits demonstrated in studies could simply be due to extra mental stimulation.

Kesler’s study attempted to measure how well the cognitive benefits of Lumosity training transferred into the real-world and found that the training group’s memory improved more than the control group, as well as their executive function and mood. And it jibes with previous research exploring the benefits of cognitive training on chemotherapy patients.

But Detterman said that not only was the small sample size of Kesler’s study a shortcoming (it included 41 people), it also included a wait list control group and relied on self-reporting for a couple of its measures.