Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is characterized by impulsivity, hyperactivity, and an inability to keep focused.
What if you or a loved one could train your brain to manage ADHD symptoms?
Like exercising your muscles, some suggest you may be able to use brain training exercises to help manage ADHD symptoms.
The short answer? It may help, but it doesn’t replace treatment.
Brain training is the idea that you can alter your brain through a variety of repetitive and frequent exercises. This can involve tools, like:
- phone apps
- computer programs
- physical therapy
- occupational therapy
- mental exercises, such as sudoku
These tools are designed to support:
- visual processing
- problem solving
- impulse control
Anecdotal clinical observations noted that neurofeedback brain-training is well-documented in scientific research for being effective at “alleviating the symptoms and behavioral manifestations of ADHD, with no enduring negative side-effects.”
These observations noted that brain training “teaches the brain to better manage its own brain-wave activity, leading to reduction of 80 to 85 percent of symptoms in the first 30 to 40 training sessions.”
Importantly, researchers noted that this type of program could be effective for “milder cases” or as a complementary treatment to other therapies.
Though it had no effect on hyperactivity or teacher ratings of symptoms, the researchers noted that training IC alone may have the potential to positively impact inattentive symptoms of ADHD, noting promise as an adjunct treatment.
In short, certain digital or neurofeedback-based training programs may help with symptoms of ADHD, but they shouldn’t replace other treatments. Their effectiveness also depends on multiple, consistent training sessions over time.
Have you ever tried patting your head with one hand while rubbing your belly with the other?
While it may feel impossible at first, over time you may find you are able to do so without putting much thought into it. This simple activity exercises your brain, pushing it to perform a complex task.
ADHD brain exercises follow that same logic.
Developing science suggests the brain is pliable and that our experiences can continue to rewire and change our brains throughout our lives.
This idea, called “neuroplasticity,” is the basis for brain training.
“Brain training programs work to harness neuroplasticity,” says Cara Koscinski, a doctor of occupational therapy. “This means our brains can form new connections over time.”
These new connections can allow the brain to:
- adapt to learning new things
- recover from traumatic injury, like stroke
- build connections for smoother function
- enhance impulse control and decision-making
Based on the science of neuroplasticity, it’s thought that practicing certain tasks and skills can rewire the brain to improve memory or attention.
Those with ADHD may be able to improve ADHD characteristics through brain training, but it’s still best to support with other treatments.
“Brain training is a non-pharmaceutical intervention that uses technology tools to help people with ADHD improve executive functioning,” explains counselor Joshua McKivigan.
Executive functioning is a skill set that includes:
- paying attention
- remembering information
- making decisions
Several commercially available products claim to improve ADHD symptoms.
These programs typically involve cognitive training that focuses on a specific ability like problem solving, memory, or attention. They often use games or activities to attempt to train the brain and improve the user’s skills.
It’s not as simple as zoning out and playing games on your phone, however.
McKivigan goes on to explain that effective brain training typically includes pre- and post-testing to monitor a user’s progress.
“There is data that suggests decreases in ADHD symptoms do occur over time,” says McKivigan. “However I don’t see this as a substitute for working with a psychiatrist, psychologist, or a mental health therapist.”
The most effective brain training for ADHD includes pre-testing and post-testing to monitor progress.
You can try ADHD brain exercises on your own, but there isn’t much evidence that they’re effective this way.
Still, it can’t hurt to work on a brain-teaser to pump your mental muscles up.
Brain exercises include:
- jigsaw puzzles
- playing cards
- drawing Zentangles
- building with Legos
The most effective ADHD brain exercises are those administered by medical professionals.
- eye exercises
- interactive metronome (IM) exercises
- neurofeedback exercises
These are complex brain training activities based on cognitive science that can be used by a trained professional to improve ADHD symptoms.
Koscinski employs interactive metronome exercises as an occupational therapist, and a 2021 study supports IM training for visual attention.
“Interactive metronome pairs physical exercise with timing. Many professionals use it with high success to boost functional outcomes,” she says.
A wide array of brain training programs exist that combine technology and professional support to improve common symptoms of ADHD, including focus, memory, and impulsiveness.
Although some programs have listed measures of success, none of the following programs have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat ADHD, and only some are supported by research.
Many programs require major time and financial commitments. Before beginning any new program, talk with a medical professional.
Providing both children and adult programs, Brain Balance combines nutrition and 1-hour daily cognitive training activities to help participants improve different behavioral aspects.
For those with ADHD, Brain Balance offers a program for improving focus and attention. The program provides in-person training as well as virtual options.
According to a 2020 study, parental responses showed that 75 percent of children showed up to 25 percent improvement, and 25 percent of children demonstrated 60 to 85.7 percent improvement after 5 to 6 months in the Brain Balance program.
Improvements were reported in the following areas:
- panic or anxiety attacks
- depression-like symptoms
- obsessive thoughts or behaviors
- social withdrawal
- emotional regulation
- emotional self-awareness
- emotional expressiveness
The primary author of the study worked for Brain Balance Achievement Centers at the time of publication, and the survey data came from the centers themselves rather than an outside researcher.
BrainTrain develops brain training software for medical and educational professionals.
The company’s products are geared toward helping experts diagnose specific needs and providing brain training activities and tools to help improve those needs. The program can be used with children and adults.
A 2018 study showed that BrainTrain users showed improvements in skills specific to the tasks, though the researchers cite concerns about long-term transferability of the skills and study quality.
Offering programs for adults and kids, C8 Sciences was created by a group of Yale University neuroscientists.
The company’s children’s program ACTIVATE uses computer or phone-based video games, coupled with programmed physical activities, to improve attentiveness.
A 2020 study indicated that children who used the program showed greater improvement than those using their usual treatment in the areas of:
- focused attention in the presence of distraction
- response inhibition or self-control
- working memory
It’s important to note that two of the scientists conducting the study are C8 equity holders.
LearningRX centers are located all across the United States. Using one-on-one brain training, customers receive individualized brain training programs.
LearningRX is available for children of all ages as well as adults. Those with ADHD can find brain training programs centered on attention, memory, and processing speed.
Myndlift combines neurofeedback technology through an app with real-life personal counselors to maximize brain training results.
The system, designed for adults, includes using Muse brain-sensing devices and electrodes while accessing the programs through the app.
Though the company website provides a summary of neurofeedback research, there’s not currently clinical support for the effectiveness of the Myndlift model.
Brain training programs have become the basis for several apps and computer programs that are easily accessible on devices like tablets or mobile phones.
Some involve extra equipment, while others just require a smartphone.
While most aren’t clinically proven to help with ADHD, they may still offer some benefits.
Play Attention aims to improve focus and concentration by using a computer-based program combined with an arm band. The arm band measures the user’s attentiveness, and the user’s mind becomes the controller.
Instead of moving forward in the game with a controller, the user continues on the video journey by paying attention. The program is geared toward older kids and adults.
Koscinski uses this program in her practice.
Mightier is an app-based heart rate biofeedback game designed to help kids “navigate big emotions.” It was developed by clinicians from Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School.
According to the company website, children using Mightier technology and therapy had major reductions in symptoms compared to a control, though the studies themselves aren’t listed. These symptoms included:
- oppositional behavior
- parental stress
Additional trials are currently in process.
BrainBeat uses the concepts of interactive metronome, a neurotherapy tool used by doctors, mental health therapists, and other medical professionals.
Targeting memory and attention deficits in children, BrainBeat combines sound, rhythm, and movement to guide kids through 20-minute sessions.
As the name suggests, Atentiv Health seeks to improve attentiveness. Using a headband to monitor EEG brainwave activity, Atentiv Health uses the EEG feedback to measure attentiveness.
The program, designed for children, consists of video games on a smart device or computer catered towards the user’s needs.
EndeavorRx is an FDA approved program that uses electronic games to help kids 8 to 12 manage ADHD symptoms. In the games, kids hone their attentiveness and foster problem-solving skills.
According to a 2021 study on EndeavorRx, researchers noted an “overall lack of support for this approach to treatment.”
Importantly, they noted that there are “multiple psychosocial and pharmacological treatment options with much more evidence supporting their effectiveness than any commercially available cognitive training program.”
Still, the Apple-based app is considered a medical device and can be prescribed by a medical professional.
MindSparke has several products, including Brain Fitness Pro, that utilize video games to improve brain-based skills.
It uses IC to improve impulse control, which may be especially helpful when coupled with meditation and other activities.
MindSparke has programs designed for all ages, including children ages 6 to 11.
Another brain technology, Narbis, uses smart glasses to help children and adults hone their attentiveness. The technology detects user distraction and sends a reminder to get back on task by tinting the glasses.
According to the company website, the glasses use sensors and a “NASA-patented algorithm” to track relaxation, distraction, and focus — though no scientific studies have been done to confirm whether it works.
Despite the claims to improve brain functioning, apps might not offer much benefit for brain training. Still, it doesn’t hurt to give them a try, especially when paired with a treatment plan.
There are also a number of apps on the market that support people with ADHD (and everyone) in staying organized, productive, and on-task.
Some popular brain training apps include:
Koscinski uses Visual Attention Therapy and Memory Games in her work.
Despite the excitement and accessibility of smartphone-based brain training apps, it’s important to remember the science around the effects of brain training for ADHD symptoms is new.
“The evidence is still emerging about significant long-term gains in cognitive function. Additionally, and of critical importance, is the ability to transfer the skills from programs to real-life,” Koscinski says.
Creating exciting brain training apps can increase the market for better, higher quality products. However, the increased amount of apps and products boasting brain training technology can also make it difficult for people with ADHD to find quality, research-based therapies.
Koscinski cautions that each app should have evidence to support its claims.
Even though there may be an app for everyone, it doesn’t guarantee brain training will work for every person living with ADHD.
“I’ve yet to encounter an intervention that works for everyone,” McKivigan says. “If it isn’t a successful intervention for some people, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work at all. It just means that it doesn’t work for everyone.”
Research on brain training is fresh and still emerging, and findings thus far about the effectiveness for reducing ADHD symptoms have been mixed.
However, these programs aren’t one-size-fits all. Experiment and speak with your healthcare team to find what will work best for you.
Always check with a physician or other specialist before starting any new programs as an adjunct to behavioral or medication interventions.
Whitney Sandoval is a freelance writer living with her family in the Midwest. She writes about parenting, infertility, and pregnancy, with bylines in What To Expect, The Kitchn, and What’s Up Moms. Along with hiding from her family, Whitney’s hobbies include running, yoga, and drinking lattes.