Children in a classroom working on tablet devices

Researchers from the Institute have urged caution on the widespread use of ‘brain training’ programs, after new research reveals they are not effective in preventing learning difficulties in primary-school-age children.

The Murdoch Children's Memory Maestros study shows Cogmed, the most widely used working memory training program, does not improve learning outcomes for children identified through screening as having low working memory.

Children with low working memory often struggle with common classroom activities and are at high risk of low academic achievement. Previous research has shown over 90 per cent of six to 11-year-old children with poor reading ability have low working memory. Low working memory is also more likely to predispose a child to difficulties with mathematics.

Products such as Cogmed are designed to improve working memory, and are commonly advertised as a solution for students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and learning difficulties.

The randomised clinical trial - the world’s largest working memory intervention trial to date - compared the effects of Cogmed, an adaptive working memory intervention program, with usual classroom teaching in Year 1 classrooms in 44 schools across Melbourne, Victoria. Researchers assessed whether using the program had any impact on the Year 3 academic outcomes of the children with low working memory.

Cogmed training has been implemented by schools around the world to support children with low working memory, including around 200 schools in Australia.

Researchers screened over 1700 students and identified 452 students with low working memory; half of these students were randomly assigned to the receive the Cogmed intervention over 20 to 25 sessions, delivered over a five to seven week period during school hours.

At 12 months and 24 months after the program was delivered, researchers analysed whether Cogmed had long-lasting impacts on student skills in reading, spelling, mathematics, memory and behaviour.

In the findings, published in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Pediatrics, researchers reported there was no evidence of improved academic outcomes in the group using the program.

Of all outcome measures tested, only visuospatial short-term memory showed slight gains at 12 months, but no clear benefits were apparent after 24 months.

According to lead researcher and developmental paediatrician Associate Professor Gehan Roberts, the findings demonstrate a lack of evidence to justify the use of Cogmed in classrooms for children identified as having low working memory.

“This is the largest study to evaluate the effectiveness of Cogmed delivered following screening. Using rigorous methodology, including randomisation and long-term follow-up, we discovered that this intervention makes little difference to important real-world outcomes such as academic skills,” said A/Prof Roberts.

“We cannot recommend screening children for low working memory in order to implement Cogmed. Given the cost of the intervention - at over $1000 per child - and loss of 15 to 20 hours of classroom time, this is not enough evidence to justify its use in preventing learning difficulties in children with low working memory.”

A/Prof Roberts called for further research into increasingly popular working memory programs and mobile apps.

“Brain training programs are growing in popularity in our digital world. However, a controversial issue is whether targeting one specific cognitive skill, in this case working memory, can improve another skill, such as academic function.”