Memory training does not appear to be helpful for children suffering from dyslexia or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorders.
Researchers also determined memory practice does not appear to provide significant benefit to healthy adults who want to improve school performance or enhance their cognitive skills.
“The success of working memory training programs is often based on the idea that you can train your brain to perform better, using repetitive memory trials, much like lifting weights builds muscle mass,” said the study’s lead author, Monica Melby-Lervåg, Ph.D., of the University of Oslo.
“However, this analysis shows that simply loading up the brain with training exercises will not lead to better performance outside of the tasks presented within these tests.”
The study is found online in the journal Developmental Psychology.
Working memory enables people to complete tasks at hand by allowing the brain to retain pertinent information temporarily. Activities to train working memory generally involve trying to get people to remember information presented to them while they are performing distracting activities.
For example, participants may be presented with a series of numbers one at a time on a computer screen. The computer presents a new digit and then prompts participants to recall the number immediately preceding. More difficult versions might ask participants to recall what number appeared two, three or four digits ago.
In the current review, researchers from the University of Oslo and University College London examined 23 peer-reviewed studies with 30 different comparisons of groups that met their criteria.
The studies were randomized controlled trials or experiments that involved some sort of working memory treatment and a control group. The studies involved a variety of participants including young children, children with cognitive impairments, such as ADHD, and healthy adults. Most of the studies had been published within the last 10 years.
Comparing and consolidating multiple studies in the form of a meta-analysis improves generalizability of the research, helping to translate research findings into practical advice.
Researchers determined that working memory training improved performance on tasks related to the training itself, but did not have an impact on more general cognitive performance such as verbal skills, attention, reading or arithmetic.
“In other words, the training may help you improve your short-term memory when it’s related to the task implemented in training, but it won’t improve reading difficulties or help you pay more attention in school,” said Melby-Lervåg.
The findings cast a dark shadow on the commercial, computer-based working memory training programs that conceptually have been developed to benefit students suffering from ADHD, dyslexia, language disorders, poor academic performance or other issues.
Some of the software claim to boost people’s IQs. These programs are widely used around the world in schools and clinics, and most involve tasks in which participants are given many memory tests that are designed to be challenging, the study said.
“In the light of such evidence, it seems very difficult to justify the use of working memory training programs in relation to the treatment of reading and language disorders,” said Melby-Lervåg.
“Our findings also cast strong doubt on claims that working memory training is effective in improving cognitive ability and scholastic attainment.”