Brain Training for Attention

We're more distracted and stressed than ever. Our attention spans and concentration are falling and our fast-paced lives are making it harder to sustain our attention long enough to complete projects. Could brain training apps help us improve our attention and concentration?

There are many brain training apps on the market, but the research has generally found that the training doesn't extend beyond improvement on the specific exercise being trained. In other words, the skills learned by playing a game don't generally transfer beyond the game to other cognitive domains. For example, training on a spatial memory task did not improve memory for digits, or even spatial memory using a different task.

In that study from Western University, after 16 days of training on the spatial memory task, the participants did improve on the task trained, but showed no improvement on the digit memory span or the new spatial memory span task! When the researchers looked at only those participants who had improved the most after 16 days of training on the spatial memory task, again, there was no improvement on the other tasks. What's especially interesting is that the test tasks (the digit memory span and the other spatial memory span tasks) have similar cognitive and neural profiles to the spatial task on which the participants trained for 16 days.

Now, researchers at the University of Cambridge have developed a new cognitive training game called "Decoder" which trains sustained attention. After 8 hours of training on "Decoder," the participants were tested on a measure of sustained attention. Compared to two control groups, the participants who trained on "Decoder" increased their performance on a sustained attention task whereas the control groups did not. In addition, the participants who trained on "Decoder" also improved their ability to shift attention rapidly, an important skill to have.

The improvements in sustained attention were similar to the effects of using stimulants, such as nicotine or Ritalin, a common treatment for ADHD. The sustained attention task used in this study has been shown to utilize a fronto-parietal neural network and people with ADHD are impaired on this task. So "Decoder" may be beneficial for them and individuals who show impairments in attention following traumatic brain injury.

"Decoder" is available on the App Store through the Peak Brain Training app.


Stojanoski, B., Lyons, K., Pearce, A., & Owen, A. (2018). Targeted training: Converging evidence against the transferable benefits of online brain training on cognitive function. Neuropsychologia117, 541–550.

Savulich, G., Thorp, E., Piercy, T., Peterson, K., Pickard, J., & Sahakian, B. (2019). Improvements in attention following cognitive training with the novel “Decoder” game on an iPad. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience13, 2.

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