Experts weigh in: Can “train the brain” games help kids with ADHD and executive functioning issues?

By The Understood Team

If your child has ADHD, you might be curious about alternative therapies to help with symptoms. An online search will likely turn up commercial games and apps that claim to boost working memory and attention. But do these “train the brain” games really work? Here, four experts weigh in with their perspective.

How exactly do these games “train” the brain?

Ellen Braaten, PhD, director, Learning and Emotional Assessment Program, Massachusetts General Hospital: It depends on what you mean by “train.” Any game that is even somewhat challenging “trains” the brain to learn something new. So it’s not exactly a lie when a company says its game or gadget is training the brain to learn.

Most of these games are designed to “teach” kids to pay attention to one type of stimulus, or to remember one type of information. But whether that skill extends to anything else is what’s important. Learning how to memorize a certain type of list through the course of a game doesn’t necessarily mean your child is going to be better at remembering directions in class.

Sean Smith, PhD, professor of special education at the University of Kansas: These web-based games and apps report to boost memory and build attention. To do that, they have users move through a series of challenges. Players are often asked to recall and recreate a sequence of shapes, colors, or objects in a certain amount of time.

If a user is successful, he moves on to a new, more complex, set of challenges. He’s rewarded with badges. And he gets data showing how much he has improved at problem solving or flexible thinking.

Sheldon Horowitz, EdD, senior director of learning resources and research at the National Center for Learning Disabilities: The games engage kids in a variety of tasks such as remembering sequences, completing patterns, switching from one task to another, and organizing things by category.

The tasks typically provide lots of visual and auditory feedback. They become more complex over time and offer fewer prompts as the child becomes more at ease with the tasks and can work for longer periods of time.

Elizabeth Harstad, MD, MPH, developmental behavioral pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital: There are several theories about how “train the brain” games could work for ADHD, although more research is needed to prove that they do work.

Many treatments that people may refer to as “games” are actually programs that use neurofeedback, a therapy that claims to change brain wave activity. That in turn supposedly changes behavior. These are different from the commercial video games and apps that are designed for fun, however.

Do “train the brain” games have any specific benefit?

Sean Smith: “Train the brain” games appear to do one thing well: They allow users to improve their efficiency in the task at hand. Research consistently shows that “gamers” produce short-term, highly specific improvement in the task directly associated with the game.

But — and this is critical — studies have also consistently found no generalized improvements. That means no improvement to the user’s overall memory, attention, intelligence, or other cognitive abilities.

So, if the goal is to remember the order in which a series of shapes were shown in a certain game, great. “Train the brain” games offer this benefit. But if you expect those skills to apply to organizing a schedule or creating a list of steps for doing an assignment, you’ll be disappointed.

Ellen Braaten: There are studies that show some measure of success in the area of working memory. But it’s hard to measure whether these gains go beyond the specific goal of the game.

Video games have been presented as a way to practice problem solving, memory and focusing skills. Any game helps anyone learn problem-solving skills. But that doesn’t mean it’s a treatment for ADHD. There really isn’t evidence that playing video games will be helpful for kids with ADHD.

Sheldon Horowitz: If they work as intended, these games would strengthen certain skills in kids with ADHD, such as working memory and attention. They would also build the ability to stay focused when distractions occur.

The big question is: Do they work? If yes, for whom, and for how long? Importantly, do they work in certain situations but not in others? And do the skills transfer from the game/practice situation to the real world?

Is there any harm in trying “train the brain” games?

Elizabeth Harstad: “Brain games” are unlikely to be harmful for your child. However, the time and effort needed to engage in them could take away from the time and effort that could be used on more proven interventions.

Ellen Braaten: There’s no harm in trying anything that’s fun (as long as it’s not dangerous!). The only real issue is whether the game becomes an obsession.

However, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, if the “game” promises to cure everything under the sun — attention, memory, hyperactivity — it’s just not true. These issues are complicated. At best, a game might help one very specific type of working memory or one specific type of problem solving.

Second, don’t spend a ton of money on any game that isn’t mainstream. If a treatment has been found to work really well, many people would be using it.

Lastly, many kids with ADHD tend to have trouble with transitioning, and can become overly focused on things that interest them. Depending on how fun the games are, you may need to set limits on the time your child spends with them.

Sean Smith: If you’re aware of their limitations, there’s no harm in playing “train the brain” games. Kids often find them fun, competitive, complex, and challenging.

However, time is a limited resource. So time spent on these games will mean less time for proven strategies and interventions. While some are free, cost is another factor to consider. Some of the more popular games have a monthly fee with various charges to gain access to additional features, levels, data, and games.

Overall, “train the brain” games are like many of the game apps on the market. They’re fun, addicting, challenging and of limited use beyond recreation.

More things you can do

    Tell us what interests you


    About the author

    About the author

    The Understood Team is made up of passionate writers and editors. Many of them have kids who learn and think differently.