It feels like 90% of the products being hawked as treatments for learning and developmental disorders like dyslexia, language impairments, autism, Asperger’s and ADHD make claims about the brain. Claims include:
There’s a good reason why companies invoke brain science in selling products. Research has shown that consumers are more likely to rate a claim as credible if it is accompanied by a picture of a brain image (McCabe & Castel, 2008). This seems to happen even if the claim is complete nonsense. Is it any wonder that programs and products (see here, here and here for examples) invoke the brain in the marketing process? It seems human lose their powers of reasoning when presented with a brain.
Crockett cautions us that there’s always more to the story than the brain images. She says “if someone tries to sell you something with a brain on it, ask to see the evidence. Ask for the part of the story that’s not being told.”
Here are other cautionary tales on the same subject:
ADHD and learning disabilities (LD) co-exist in many children. Many of these students have problems with working memory. Although a little crude, the best description I have for working memory is that it is a set of cognitive functions that help you keep your s@#* together while performing a complex task.
Working memory predicts parent ratings of inattentive behaviours and has been found to be below average in LD and ADHD samples in a large number of studies. It has also been shown to be a predictor of academic success. Previously it had been thought that working memory was a fixed trait. However, recent evidence (see for e.g., Klingberg, 2010; Klingberg et al., 2005) is suggesting that it can be modified via a computerised memory training program called Cogmed. Note that the claim has been that Cogmed improves working memory when all we can really conclude is that a period of training using the program leads to improved scores on tests of working memory. There is an important difference between these two claims.
While there may be evidence for improved working memory scores there is limited evidence of transfer to important functional skills. The sort of transfer one would want to see includes reductions in symptoms of ADHD and improved academic performance in students who have ADHD/LD.
A recent study (Gray et al., 2012) in Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry performed a randomised controlled trial on the Cogmed program. 60 adolescents (age 12-17) were recruited from a residential school for students with severe LD and ADHD. Inclusion criteria were (a) full time attendance, (b) diagnosis of LD and ADHD made in the community before entering the school, (c) IQ >80, and (d) English as primary language. Data from standardised achievement tests indicated that 82% of the sample scored <25th percentile in reading, spelling and maths. 72% of the sample were <25th percentile on the WISC-IV Working Memory Index. Almost all were receiving psychostimulant medication.
Participants were allocated randomly to a Cogmed or maths training group. Working memory tests included digits forward and backward and spatial span, the D2 Test of Attention and the Working Memory Rating Scale. Transfer tests were the WRAT-4 Progress Monitoring Version tests, which includes tests of reading, spelling, maths, and sentence comprehension. Parent and teacher ratings of attention and other symptoms of ADHD were also obtained.
Results showed that the Cogmed group performed better at post-test on the measures of backwards digit span and spatial span. No group differences were found for forwards digit span. Cogmed had no effect on teacher ratings of attention and behaviour. No effects were found for any of the academic measures.
Taken together, the data showed two important things. First, they added to the evidence that working memory is trainable. Second, and this is the most important point, improving working memory via Cogmed did not lead to any improvements in teacher- and parent-rated behaviour or to improvements in any academic skill relative to a group who received maths intervention.
These conclusions are fairly consistent with the whole “brain training” (or as I call it, “neurobabble”) literature. Great claims are made by program developers about improvements in “brain function” but few gains are seen on real-life skills.