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Brain gain: Video game sharpens up older players' mental skills

By Amina Khan

9:30 AM EDT, September 6, 2013

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Video games aren’t just for the young — they can improve declining brain function in the old and elderly, according to a new study published in Nature.

The findings by a team of UC San Francisco researchers show that the aging brain is a lot more robust than it’s often given credit for, given the right type of mental exercise.

The findings “provide the first evidence, to our knowledge, of how a custom designed video game can be used to assess cognitive abilities across the life span, evaluate underlying neural mechanisms, and serve as a powerful tool for cognitive enhancement,” the study authors wrote.

Video games from Grand Theft Auto to Halo are perhaps better known more for entertainment than education – though some advocates of brain-training games have argued that they can improve cognitive skills. The jury’s out on whether video games improve cognitive function in healthy young people, but perhaps it could help older folk, who might benefit from a cognitive leg up.

"Over the last decade our laboratory has shown that older adults are particularly sensitive to a negative impact of interference on their cognitive abilities," UCSF neuroscientist and research leader Adam Gazzaley said in a briefing this week. "By interference, I mean both distraction from irrelevant information as well as attempts to multitask."

To test this idea, Gazzaley’s team designed a game that would test subjects’ brain power – specifically, their cognitive control, a set of abilities that allow people to be goal-oriented while navigating a complex, chaotic world. Cognitive control includes skills such as multitasking and vigilance, and has been shown to decline with age.

The game, called NeuroRacer, required subjects to use a joystick with their left hand to steer a car driving on a winding road. At the same time, random colored shapes would pop up on the screen, and players would have to use their right hand to respond to the correct shape (a green circle).

This multitasking comes with a cost: A player’s ability to keep the car centered gets worse as they’re forced to also focus on another task (the shape test).

They tested about 30 players each in six decades of life, from their twenties to their seventies, and watched how much worse their driving got when they had to multitask. They found that the players’ cognitive abilities declined in a linear fashion, from the twenties onward.

So as a whole, older folks fared the worst. But older players got much better at the game with practice. For the second experiment, subjects aged 60 to 85 played the game three hours a week for a month. The researchers tested the players again and found that their average cognitive cost from multitasking went from a 64.2% decline at the beginning of the month to just a 16.2% dip at the end -- nearly a four-fold improvement.

In fact, they performed better than twentysomethings who were playing it for the first time (they suffered a 36.7% cognitive cost).

Older players who just did each task separately – either driving the race car, or responding to the colored shape – didn’t reap the same mental rewards as those who juggled both at the same time. Exercising that cognitive control ability by multitasking seemed to be key.

To back that idea up, the researchers hooked the aged players’ noggins up with electrodes before and after the month of practice. They saw a clear rise in neural activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain associated with cognitive control.

On top of that, there were clear improvements in mental abilities that the game didn’t directly test, including working memory (the ability to hold information in your head for short periods of time until it’s used) and vigilance (the ability to pay attention for long periods of time.) Somehow, the skills developed while playing NeuroRacer were being transferred to abilities that were technically outside of the game.

"Transfer is not a magical property," Gazzaley said. Both vigilance and working memory are part of cognitive control, so the game must have been strengthening "a common underlying mechanism," not just a few isolated skills.

Even though they didn’t continue to play NeuroRacer, the older players’ mental gains were long lasting. Tested six months later, their cognitive cost of multitasking was just 21.9% -- a little poorer than their earlier 16.2% showing, but still better than the whippersnapper twentysomethings who only played once.

The study served as a proof of concept that, if properly designed, individually tailored games that challenged older adults’ mental abilities could potentially keep their brains limber for longer, Gazzaley said.

"I do like the idea of … developing interventions to keep healthy older adults' brains at the top of their game," he said.

Some possible advice for such games? Make sure it’s actually fun, Gazzaley added.

"My impressions are that when a game is fun, when people do find it enjoyable … plasticity [the brain’s ability to adapt with experience] will be maximized," he said. 

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