A video game designed by researchers may help improve cognitive skills and enhance memory, according to a new study. Results of the study, published yesterday in the journal Nature, showed that seniors who played a game called NeuroRacer showed marked improvements in certain cognitive functions, including attention span and ability to multitask.
It’s no secret that as we age, our cognitive abilities diminish. Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco were interested in seeing how challenging the brain can slow that cognitive decline.
Studies on dementia and cognitive decline have exploded in recent years in an attempt to find a cure, or at the very least, preventative measures. Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia are the leading reason for needing long term care, a crisis that poses a large financial threat to our country.
As senior living providers prepare for the influx of Baby Boomers, Americans are searching for ways to remain healthy for as long as possible.
Many studies have shown that a balanced, active lifestyle can significantly help in warding off dementia. Such a lifestyle includes regular physical activity, a balanced diet with proper nutrition, frequent socialization and mental stimulation, and low amounts of stress. Although still in the early stages of research, this study shows that video games may hold real potential to help mental skills in older people.
To first establish the baseline criteria, researchers tested 174 people between the ages of 20 and 79 on their performace in the game NeuroRacer. This test established that, as expected, our ability to multitask declines over time. The game was designed to react to the player’s ability, so it challenges players who are doing well and eases up on players who are doing poorly.
After baseline testing, they tested 46 adults between the ages of 60 and 85. 16 of these adults were placed in the multitask group and instructed to play the video game for one hour a day, three days per week, for four weeks. The multitask game consisted of a driving challenge with signs that would pop up and force the player to focus on both their driving and making a quick decision that measured their accuracy and reaction time. The patients’ cognitive abilities and brain functions were all tested before and after training with the game, as well as after they playing the game for four weeks.
Evidence of Improvement
The participants saw significant improvements in their ability to multitask, even when compared to a younger group of individuals in their 20s who were tested the same way. Scientists also noted an improved difference in the prefrontal cortex from before and after training.
Possibly the most encouraging results were that in addition to bettered multitasking ability, the seniors also experienced improvements in other areas that the game didn’t target, like attention span and memory.
Researchers tested the participants again 6 months later and received nearly identical results, despite the fact that they had not played the video game during those 6 months. These results indicates that the cognitive and memory effects might not simply be short-term reaction to a video game, but long term skills that helped train the mind.
While the findings are encouraging, the test group was very small. 16 individuals cannot be a true representation of any population. However, the success of the study has led them to additional testing of NeuroRacer with children who have ADHD to see if their attention span can be improved by playing the game.
Another important thing to keep in mind, Gazzaley noted, is that because the game was specifically designed for the purpose of training cognitive abilities, the results are only relevant to NeuroRacer, not commercial video games.