Brain Training: How Science-Backed App 'Decoder' Can Boost Concentration

"Decoder" makes a break from other apps on the market.

A new brain training game has been scientifically proven to help improve player concentration, a new study has found. “Decoder,” which started rolling out to smartphones on Sunday, breaks from other apps on the market that claims to boost brain power but hold questionable real-world value.

“We’ve all experienced coming home from work feeling that we’ve been busy all day, but unsure what we actually did,” Barbara Sahakian a member of the team that helped develop the game from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, said in a statement. “Most of us spend our time answering emails, looking at text messages, searching social media, trying to multitask. But instead of getting a lot done, we sometimes struggle to complete even a single task and fail to achieve our goal for the day. Then we go home, and even there we find it difficult to ‘switch off’ and read a book or watch TV without picking up our smartphones. For complex tasks we need to get in the ‘flow’ and stay focused.”

The game involves asking players to watch a series of digits from two to nine flashing up one by one, at a rate of 100 digits per minute. Over the course of five minutes, players must press a button when they start to see a sequence emerge. Researchers looked at 75 adults split into three groups, asking two of the groups to either play the game or play Bingo over the course of eight one-hour sessions held over a month, with the third group doing nothing. The team tested participants before and after the month, and found they scored higher on the CANTAB Rapid Visual Information Processing test than the Bingo and game-free groups. The resultant paper, “Improvements in Attention Following Cognitive Training With the Novel “Decoder” Game on an iPad,” was published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience on Monday.

The game is a marked change from many solutions on the market, which claim to boost brainpower but have little scientific backing. Researcher Hilda Bastian noted in July 2016 that one study which claimed brain training cuts dementia in half failed to properly randomize the participants. Lumosity, which was fined $2 million by the Federal Trade Commission over its advertising claims, has been found to overstate its case.

“Many brain training apps on the market are not supported by rigorous scientific evidence,” said George Savulich from the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute at the university. “Our evidence-based game is developed interactively and the games developer, Tom Piercy, ensures that it is engaging and fun to play. The level of difficulty is matched to the individual player and participants enjoy the challenge of the cognitive training.”

The team has included the game as part of the “Peak Brain Training” app, available now for free for iOS. While the app is also available on Android, the “Decoder” game won’t arrive until later this year.

Read the paper’s abstract below:

Work and study increasingly rely on the use of technologies requiring individuals to switch attention rapidly between emails, texts and tasks. This has led to healthy people having problems of attention and concentration and difficulties getting into the “flow,” which impedes goal attainment and task completion. Possibly related to this, there is an increasing diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and prescriptions of drugs such as methylphenidate. In addition to ADHD, attention is impaired in other neuropsychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia and in traumatic brain injury (TBI). Based on neuropsychological and neuroimaging evidence, we developed “Decoder,” a novel game for targeted cognitive training of visual sustained attention on an iPad. We aimed to investigate the effects of cognitive training in 75 healthy young adults randomly assigned to a Cognitive Training (8 h of playing Decoder over 4 weeks; n = 25), Active Control (8 h of playing Bingo over 4 weeks; n = 25) or Passive Control (continuation of activities of daily living; n = 25) group. Results indicated that cognitive training with Decoder was superior to both control groups in terms of increased target sensitivity (A’) on the Cambridge Neuropsychological Test Automated Battery Rapid Visual Information processing (CANTAB RVP) test, indicating significantly improved sustained visual attention. Individuals playing Decoder also showed significantly better performance on the Trail Making Test (TMT) compared with those playing Bingo. Significant differences in visual analogue scales were also found between the two gaming groups, such that Decoder received higher ratings of enjoyment, task-related motivation and alertness across all hours of game play. These data suggest that cognitive training with Decoder is an effective non-pharmacological method for enhancing attention in healthy young adults, which could be extended to clinical populations in which attentional problems persist.

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