Can Computer-based Games help Improve Working Memory and Cognitive Processing Deficits?

Compiled by Kaveh Farrokh (Ph.D.), Counsellor & Learning Specialist at Langara College Counselling Department.


Brain Training” as promoted by the Luminosity company was greatly criticized for having made exaggerated claims in its advertising. The FTC (Federal Trade Commission) fined the company 2 million dollars for this. The FTC report came in the heels of a 2016 statement made by 70 neuroscientists who opposed the claims of the growing brain-game sector. An article by Simon Makin in the 2015 Scientific American Mind edition also challenged the notion that cognitive performance could be improved with brain training games. Dan Hurley in the Summer 2017 edition of the Scientific American Mind has examined more recent, and less partisan studies that provide a different perspective with respect to brain games. In short, Hurley’s review reveals the science behind computer-based cognitive training as holding significant potential.

Hurley begins his article by examining computer games specifically designed for children and adults diagnosed with attention deficit challenges. The success of these games is based on their targeting working memory (WM). Note that WM is critical for managing multiple tasks in your mind – Hurley states of WM:

the ability to maintain and juggle multiple items in your head – the cognitive equivalent of chewing gum while walking” [2017, p.80]

WM is essential to academia, especially with respect to comprehension, reasoning and learning. One example is reading comprehension where one needs to recall the beginning of a paragraph even as one approaches the end of that paragraph. Mental arithmetic (addition, subtraction, multiplication and division) is also critically dependent on WM. Attention deficits serve to impair WM, which in turn “downgrades” critical reading and math skills.

The strength of a learner’s WM was long been considered to be a fixed (or unchangeable) trait in the research literature. This paradigm has been challenged by a 2002 study undertaken at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden by Torkel Klingenberg who found that WM capacity could be increased. Klingenberg’s study had children practice four tests designed to improve working memory capacity. An example of such tasks is listening to strings of numbers and then recalling these in reverse order. As noted by Hurley:

After 10.5 hours of practicing games that put progressively tougher demands on their working memory, children diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) showed improvements on other, untrained measures of working memory ” [2017, p.80]

Not all studies however have been able to demonstrate the benefits of computer-based training for adults and children diagnosed with ADHD symptoms. A 2013 meta-analysis of such studies for example cast doubt on the efficacy of computer-based methods for cognitive improvements among ADHD clients. However a more recent 2015 meta-analysis of research studies by Dutch researchers questions the conclusions of the 2013 meta-analysis. The overall conclusion of the 2015 meta-analysis is that there are:

“…persisting training benefits for inattention in daily life” [as cited by Hurley, 2017, p.81]

The overall conclusion that may be inferred is that there are computer-based games that could possibly improve cognitive functions, notably with respect to domains such as attention and working memory, which in turn can improve academic performance.

There are at least four cognitive based training programs that appear to hold promise:

Cogmed: This program is a series of Working Memory (WM) games (owned by Pearson Education in London, England). Participants of this program have been reported as having reduced their inattention by approximately one-third of a standard deviation. It would appear that Cogmed is targeting the neurological apparatus associated with WM. In general the benefits of Cogmed are reported as improved verbal memory, processing speed and attention.

Akili: This is a program designed by Akili Games. Results of testing on 80 children with ADHD found that a significant number of these benefitted by improved attention, more efficient WM function and impulse control.

SHARP (Strengthening Human Adaptive Reasoning and Problem Solving): This program perhaps holds the most promise by combining computerized training (and other methods not specified by Hurley), physical exercise, mild electrical brain stimulation and mindfulness meditation. This program is being studied and assessed by the US Office of Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity.

The author of this article (Kaveh Farrokh) contacted Dan Hurley to inquire further about his research, especially with respect to programs that have the potential to improve cognitive performance in ADD/ADHD students. Here are the highlights of his response to Kaveh Farrokh on November 20, 2017:

Hi Kaveh: Thanks for reaching out. Right now, the strongest scientific evidence for benefits has been seen with a program called Brain HQ. If you ever want to suggest a program to one of your students with ADHD, that’s the one I recommend. Of course, kids with ADHD are the very ones who will have the hardest time sticking with these kinds of programs. But it’s nice for people to see that, with practice, they do get better. 

All the best with your important work in helping students succeed. Please stay in touch.  Best, Dan

[Note: the webpage is …]

Interestingly cancer treatment survivors have also benefited from programs of the Cogmed type. One reported example is the case of women who had undergone chemotherapy for breast cancer treatment. Many of these then experience what is termed as the “chemo brain” effect that is a case of thinking and memory problems and/or decline. A 2015 meta-analysis published by Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine found that in comparison to other traditional methods of therapy such as drugs and physical exercise:

“… cognitive therapy protocols delivered after chemotherapy … hold the most promise” [Hurley, 2017, p.81]

Similar findings have been reported with respect to child survivors of cancer and leukemia who experienced cognitive deficits as a result of treatment(s). Research by the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital found that children who were given the Cogmed program experienced significant improvement in a variety of cognitive tasks. The case of working memory is especially significant as deficits in this domain often lead to reductions in IQ and academic performance. However children who participated in the Cogmed program improved with respect to WM. Interestingly these were first placed in an MRI (prior to Cogmed training) to gauge their level of frontal lobe activity with respect to cognitive tasks. The same participants were then placed in the MRI after exposure to Cogmed training. The results were notable: MRI results for post Cogmed training participants found that they used less blood flow in two areas of their frontal lobes during problem-solving tasks. This is attributed to them having become more efficient in their cognitive processing skills as a result of Cogmed training.

Another area of promising research is the works of Sophia Vinogradov of the University of Minnesota with respect to schizophrenia. The condition of schizophrenia is especially challenging given the severe cognitive impairment for which anti-psychotic medications have little effectiveness. Vinogradov and her colleagues have partnered with Posit Science to produce over two dozen studies that have shown the benefits of computerized cognitive training for schizophrenic patients. As noted by Hurley, the studies have found:

significant improvements in verbal memory, learning and daily functioning after training.” [Hurley, 2017, p.82]

Key to Vinogradov’s approach has been the notion of “sound sweeps” which are a series of rising or falling tones presented to the client. An example of this could be the sound of a car that is moving away or coming closer. Clients are first presented sounds at very slow speeds, which then progress to much higher speeds. When speeds of sounds (receding or approaching) become very high (e.g. 12 milliseconds) these become very hard to distinguish (i.e. whether these are approaching or receding). Another exercise is the presentation of nonsense syllables presented at higher and higher speeds with an increasing level of distracting background noises.

Vinogradov’s premise is based on the association of schizophrenia with sensory processing deficiency that in turn contributes to defects in higher level cognitive processing (or thinking skills). Vinogradov’s research has not only helped clients suffering with schizophrenia (especially those with recent onset of the condition) but also for adolescents and young adults at high risk for psychosis. As noted by Melissa Fisher of the University of Minnesota who collaborates with Vinogradov and Posit Science:

We definitely are seeing improvements in cognition, specifically with auditory training, where we see large gains in verbal cognitive operations” [as cited by Hurley, 2017, p.82]


Hurley, D. (2017). The For-Real Science of Brain Training. Scientific American Mind: Mysteries of the Mind (Special Collector’s Edition), Volume 26, Number 3, Summer, pp.76-83.

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