Cogmed: Does working memory training work?

This question seems to be popping up more and more lately. There has been a surge of recent research and publicity related to the training program, so it’s no wonder people are curious.

First of all, if your initial reaction to the above paragraph is, “what are you talking about?” here’s a quick Cogmed 101:

Cogmed is a research-based training program designed to help attention and working memory – working memory being a cognitive function that keeps information in your mind for several seconds, manipulates it, and then uses it in your thinking. Essentially, Cogmed is a computer-based program, where participants engage in exercises and games that challenge and ‘train’ their working memory skills. As you may have guessed, individuals with ADHD often have deficits in their working memory, so this is an important target area for treatment.

The problem with the question driving this blog entry is that “does working memory training work” is such a loaded question – there are so many other questions within that question that need to be addressed first, such as:

  • Is working memory less fixed and biologically determined than we thought? Yes.
  • If working memory ability is predictive of academic achievement, if you improve your working memory, can you achieve higher marks in school? In theory, but not in practice yet.
  • If working memory is related to attention, will attention improve if working memory improves? Again, in theory, but not in practice yet.
  • Findings show that training can improve working memory – as measured by simple tasks – so does this mean that we can change our memory capacity? Yes, we can. That being said, we still don’t know for sure if these improvements last or if they translate outside of the program.

The bottom line: When individuals – ADHD or not – train their working memory using Cogmed, there are improvements noted. For example, their ability to remember simple strings of digits (repeated forwards and backwards) and their ability to remember a sequence of boxes on a screen is improved.

But, we don’t have any evidence to suggest that this improvement translates into any ‘real life’ improvements. We have yet to see significant evidence for benefits in behaviour or academic functioning. Yes, there are some studies that show improvements in these areas with working memory training, but if you look closely at them, the design doesn’t allow us to make these conclusions with confidence.

So, after all that – what do you think of Cogmed?

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