The team of Florida State University researchers found no evidence that the games increased overall cognitive abilities.
"Our findings and previous studies confirm there's very little evidence these types of games can improve your life in a meaningful way," said Researcher Wally Boot, an expert on age-related cognitive decline.
Researcher Neil Charness said an increasing number of people believe brain training helps protect them against memory loss or cognitive disorders.
"Brain challenges like crossword games are a popular approach, especially among baby boomers, as a way to try to protect cognition," Charness noted.
That popularity has turned the brain-training industry into a billion-dollar business. Brain games are available online and through mobile apps that typically sell for about 15 dollars a month or 300 dollars for lifetime memberships. But advertising for this rapidly growing business sector has sometimes used inflated claims. The Federal Trade Commission fined one brain-training company 50 million dollars for false advertising, which was later lowered to 2 million dollars.
"More companies are beginning to be fined for these types of inflated claims and that's a good thing," Boot said. "These exaggerated claims are not consistent with the conclusions of our latest study."
The FSU team's study focused on whether brain games could boost the "working memory" needed for a variety of tasks. In their study, they set up one group of people to play a specially designed brain-training video game called "Mind Frontiers," while another group of players performed crossword games or number puzzles.
All players were given lots of information they needed to juggle to solve problems. Researchers tested whether the games enhanced players' working memory and consequently improved other mental abilities, such as reasoning, memory and processing speed.
That's the theory behind many brain games: If you improve overall working memory, which is fundamental to so much of what we do every day, then you can enhance performance in many areas of your life.
The team examined whether improving working memory would translate to better performance on other tasks or as the researchers called it: "far transfer."
"It's possible to train people to become very good at tasks that you would normally consider general working memory tasks: memorizing 70, 80, even 100 digits," Charness said. "But these skills tend to be very specific and not show a lot of transfer. The thing that seniors in particular should be concerned about is, if I can get very good at crossword puzzles, is that going to help me remember where my keys are? And the answer is probably no."
Charness noted that other research finds aerobic exercise, rather than mental exercise, is great for your brain. Physical exercise can actually cause beneficial structural changes in the brain and boost its function. He predicts "exer-gaming," which combines exercise with brain games, will increase in popularity in the 21st century.