Brain Training Programs for ADHD, Dyslexia and other Learning Disorders: Issues & Controversies

Parents are eager to help their ADHD or LD child, and in response, there is a wave of new companies offering hope by touting extraordinary claims. At Turning Point, we have decided to dig a little deeper to determine if their claims are backed by nonbiased, reputable science.

Buzz words such as “neuroplasticity” and “brain training” sound scientific when selling the idea that neurodevelopmental problems can be fixed. It’s easy to see the attraction with these packaged interventions; however, there are a number of red flags and considerations we implore you to take note of before investing your time and money.

It’s important to note that some clients may have found these types of programs to improve either themselves or their child’s learning. However, we have yet to hear from any of our clients that their investment resulted in convincing results. This is what lead to our investigation.

We would like to refer you to several articles as part of your due diligence in considering these programs. Some of the articles we suggest are primary sources and some are secondary or opinion pieces. They refer to organizations such as Brain Balance, Lumosity and Arrowsmith, and there is also some mention of Interactive Metronome.

To start your inquiry, this article from Stanford University Department of Longevity addresses the claims being made by the entire industry A Consensus on the Brain Training Industry from the Scientific Community and this one from the Association for Psychological Science (APS) addresses the general scientific opinion on the industry Do “Brain-Training” Programs Work?

Starting with the company Brain Balance, Harriet Hall, MD saved us some work here by questioning the company’s science in her opinion piece posted on the website Science-Based Medicine. She makes some good points referring to the “Hawthorne Effect” for example, and questioning why there are no control groups in their studies. Here is a snippet from her article:

“The Brain Balance Study”

This new study on brain balance is a pilot study, the kind of study whose results are not intended to guide clinical decisions but only to direct future research. They didn’t even bother to use a control group. They took 122 children with diagnosed ADHD and submitted them to what they call “a hemisphere specific remediation program.” The rationale for the study was flimsy. They speculate that ADHD is related to a “functional dysconnectivity,” hemispheric imbalance, subcortical dysfunction, a lack of temporal coherence, and a difference in arousal level between the hemispheres. They provide no evidence that these are characteristic of ADHD or were present in their subjects, or that their treatments specifically changed any of them. They assumed an underactive right hemisphere (it was not clear why) and they provided interventions that they assumed (without any supporting evidence) ought to remedy the alleged imbalance. They tested for the child’s specific deficits and provided tailored interventions: these included sensory stimulation, motor training, aerobic strength and conditioning, primitive reflex inhibition exercises and academic training. None of these interventions seem to me to be directed at a specific hemisphere, despite their unsupported statement that the treatment “was aimed nominally at exercises thought to principally stimulate the less efficiently performing hemisphere.” (Emphasis added.) Synchronized Metronome Treatment was given, where subjects listened to a metronome beat and matched physical movements to it. This was intended to “improve participants’ timing/rhythmicity by reducing the latency between the onset of the metronome beat and the participant’s expectancy response to the beat.” It is not clear how any of the tested interventions constituted “hemisphere specific training.”

The subjects improved significantly on several measures: parental reports, achievement tests, grade level performance, objective improvement in coordination with the interactive metronome. But what do these results mean? Without a control group, it is impossible to know whether the interventions were responsible for the improvement. In the “Hawthorne effect,” simply being enrolled in a study tends to improve performance. People frequently improve their performance when any test is repeated. In this case, all children were also taking stimulant medication throughout the study: how do we know that alone didn’t account for the improvements? (Hall 2010)

Article found here: Brain Balance

There has also been a great deal of controversy about Lumosity, which claims that playing “brain games” can “challenge” your memory, attention, and problem solving skills. They also state these games can help prevent age-related memory decline, including dementia. based on “proven neuroscience research.” The Federal Trade Commission however, charged that Lumosity doesn’t show solid science proving these games work the way they claim to. Due to its misleading ads, the FTC issued thousands of customer rebates amounting to almost $2 million from Lumosity.

The US is cracking down on other brain-training games. The FTC moved against the marketer of LearningRx Suite for brain-training games which resulted in a $200,000 settlement for their false claims about their games improving ADHD and Alzheimer’s disease.

These articles further discuss the research and the false claims made by Lumosity:

Lastly, we discuss a controversial school program that claims to help children with learning difficulties; however, experts are warning there is no definitive proof that it works. The Arrowsmith Program has students complete a series of neuroplasticity exercises to change their brain. One of the main criticisms is that there’s never been empirically-based research on the program, nor has the program been peer-reviewed by nonbiased professionals. The program does reference studies that have been done on very small groups of participants and makes reference to studies that are not yet completed.

Further information regarding The Arrowsmith Program can be found in these articles:

When it comes to parents looking for the right program for their child, we know that it’s not only an important decision but its valuable time and money invested as you help your child develop into a successful individual. We simply want you to have reliable facts when making these difficult decisions.

If you or someone you know has experience with these organizations, good or bad, please comment on our blog page.

Our next blog will address proven techniques for help with dyslexia, ADHD and other learning disorders.


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