A new 'brain training' game designed by researchers at the University of Cambridge improves users' concentration, according to new research published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. The scientists behind the venture say this could provide a welcome antidote to the daily distractions that we face in a busy world.

In their book, The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen point out that with the emergence of new technologies requiring rapid responses to emails and texts and working on multiple projects simultaneously, young people, including students, are having more problems with sustaining attention and frequently become distracted.

Difficulty in focussing attention is made worse by stress

This difficulty in focussing attention and concentrating is made worse by stress from a global environment that never sleeps and also frequent travel leading to jetlag and poor quality sleep. "We've all experienced coming home from work feeling that we've been busy all day, but unsure what we actually did," says Professor Barbara Sahakian.

"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."

In their study, the researchers divided 75 healthy young adults into three groups: one group received Decoder, one control group played Bingo for the same amount of time and a second control group received no game. Participants in the first two groups were invited to attend eight one-hour sessions over the course of a month during which they played either Decoder or Bingo under supervision.

Decoder players were better than Bingo

Those who played Decoder were better than those who played Bingo and those who played no game. The difference in performance was significant and meaningful as it was comparable to those effects seen using stimulants, such as methylphenidate, or nicotine. To ensure that Decoder improved focussed attention and concentration without impairing the ability to shift attention, the researchers also tested participants' ability on the Trail Making Test. 

Professor Sahakian commented: "Many people tell me that they have trouble focussing their attention. Decoder should help them improve their ability to do this. In addition to healthy people, we hope that the game will be beneficial for patients who have impairments in attention, including those with ADHD or traumatic brain injury. We plan to start a study with traumatic brain injury patients this year."

"Peak's version of Decoder is even more challenging than our original test game, so it will allow players to continue to gain even larger benefits in performance over time," says Professor Sahakian. "By licensing our game, we hope it can reach a wide audience who are able to benefit by improving their attention."