Elderly people who did 10 sessions of brain training had half as many crashes on the road as untrained counterparts – even though the training didn’t directly relate to driving itself.
“There are no other cognitive training programs, or ‘brain games’, that have been demonstrated by published, peer-reviewed studies to enhance driving performance,” says Jerri Edwards of the University of South Florida in Tampa, a co-leader of the study.
The results contradict a study of 11,000 people earlier this year, carried out by Adrian Owen at the University of Cambridge and colleagues, which found that brain training didn’t help improve cognitive skills outside the game itself.
“Overall, people need to know that not all brain training is equal,” says Edwards. “Some programs work and some don’t.”
On the road
With an average age of 73, the 908 participants in the latest study were assigned to one of three different computer training programs or to no training at all. One program focused on improving reaction speed, another on reasoning skills and the third on memory. Each course lasted for 10 sessions, and then the participants were tracked for six years to see how many times they had road crashes for which they were personally responsible.
It turned out that the reaction speed and reasoning skills programs helped reduce accidents by 50 per cent, but the memory training made no difference. Of the participants with no training, 18 per cent had at least one crash, just slightly ahead of the 16 per cent of memory course participants who had accidents. By contrast, only 10 per cent of the speed-training group had crashes, and 12 per cent of those on the reasoning course.
Over the 10 sessions, the courses cranked up the skills of the participants by presenting them with progressively tougher tasks. In the reaction-speed program, for example, participants had to fulfil tests such as identifying targets flashing up on a computer screen. The reasoning course challenged participants to recognise patterns to solve problems.
“On the road, the brain needs to process a lot of visual information quickly,” says Steven Aldrich, chief executive of Posit Science, the company in San Francisco, California, that developed the programs. “So the visual speed-of-processing training directly improves brain functions involved in driving safely, making them faster and more accurate.”
Get to the gym
In the light of the findings, Edwards recommends that the elderly try cognitive training programs – but only ones that have been validated by research. Also, she says they should maintain physical exercise, as this helps to keep the brain fit too.
“Research shows that over long periods of time, participation in cognitively stimulating activities may stave off dementia,” says Edwards. “However, engagement in effective and challenging brain exercises targeting specific cognitive abilities may be required to immediately improve cognitive and everyday function of older adults,” she says.
Aldrich says that participating in the courses had other beneficial spin-offs. Trained brains were 38 per cent less likely to develop depression up to a year afterwards, and less likely than controls to develop health problems when checked two and five years after training. Also, 68 per cent of those who took the reaction-speed course retained their increased reaction times at a two-year follow up.
Torkel Klingberg, who develops cognitive training progams at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, says the study shows that training in basic cognitive abilities can improve everyday performance too. “Both the reasoning training and the speed-of-reaction training would improve attention skills, which are both important in driving,” he says.
Adrian Owen was contacted for comment but was unable to respond.