Putting brain training to the test in the workplace: a randomized, blinded, multisite, active-controlled trial

PLoS One. 2013;8(3):e59982. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0059982. Epub 2013 Mar 28.


Background: Cognitive training (CT) is effective at improving cognitive outcomes in children with and without clinical impairment as well as older individuals. Yet whether CT is of any preventative health benefit to working age adults is controversial. Our objective was therefore to investigate the real-world efficacy of CT in the workplace, involving employees from across the working-age spectrum and addressing many of the design issues that have limited trials to date.

Methods and findings: 135 white collar employees of a large Australian public sector organization were randomised to either 16 weeks (20 minutes three times per week) of online CT or an active control (AC) program of equal length and structure. Cognitive, wellbeing and productivity outcome measures were analysed across three timepoints: baseline, immediately after training and 6 months post-training. CT effects on cognitive outcomes were limited, even after planned subgroup analyses of cognitive capacity and age. Unexpectedly, we found that our AC condition, which comprised viewing short documentaries about the natural world, had more impact. Compared to the CT group, 6 months after the end of training, those in the AC group experienced a significant increase in their self-reported Quality of Life (Effect Size g = .34 vs -.15; TIME×GROUP p = .003), decrease in stress levels (g = .22 vs -.19; TIME x GROUP p = .03), and overall improvement in Psychological Wellbeing (g = .32 vs -.06; TIME×GROUP p = .02).

Conclusions: CT does not appear to positively impact cognition or wellbeing amongst white collar office workers; however, short time-out respite activities may have value in the promotion of psychological wellbeing. Given looming challenges to workplace productivity, further work-based interventional research targeting employee mental health is recommended.

Trial registration: THIS TRIAL WAS REGISTERED WITH THE AUSTRALIAN NEW ZEALAND CLINICAL TRIALS REGISTRY: ACTRN12610000604000 (http://www.anzctr.org.au/TrialSearch.aspx).

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Australia
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy / methods*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Occupational Health
  • Quality of Life
  • Treatment Outcome
  • Workplace*
  • Young Adult

Grant support

While this study was sponsored by The Brain Department Pty Ltd (Sydney, Australia) through their provision of the intervention, CB, the primary researcher, was independently supported by an Australian Postgraduate Award scholarship. This arrangement did not alter the authors’ adherence to all the PLOS ONE policies on sharing data and materials and the funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.