If keeping the brain spry were as simple as pumping iron, everyone would want to own the ultimate piece of cognitive exercise equipment. But designing activities to reverse the mental effects of aging is tricky. A new video game created by neuroscientists shows promise in reversing some signs of decline. Now, the researchers behind it aim to prove that video game training can be more than the latest workout craze.
Games designed to keep the brain healthy as it ages have found an eager audience. “Many, many people have gotten into the business,” says neuropsychologist Glenn Smith of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. The brain does appear to be capable of changing its structure and developing new skills over the course of a lifetime. But not all the products on the market are designed using scientific knowledge of the aging brain, and their ability to make meaningful, lasting changes hasn’t been proven, says Smith, who studies games as treatment for early signs of dementia. “There’s an awful lot of skepticism out there,” he says.
The heart of the issue is whether practicing a video game can strengthen skills that are useful away from a computer. Early research showed that people could improve on computerized memory and speed tasks in the lab, Smith says. But it’s not clear whether these gains translate to everyday life. A recent trend puts more value in games that target the underlying problem—the decline in ability to remember and react as people age.
Neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco, had this trend in mind as they developed a video game called NeuroRacer. Building on research showing that distractions become more problematic with age, the group worked with the gaming industry to create a 3D environment that would target multitasking skill.
NeuroRacer throws two tasks at a player simultaneously. Players must press a button only when a certain symbol (like a blue circle) appears onscreen and avoid reacting to other symbols that pop up. Meanwhile, they must use a joystick to control a car swerving along a winding, hilly virtual track. As a player gets better at managing the chaos, both tasks speed up, keeping the game “right in that sweet spot, where it’s not too hard and frustrating, and not too easy and boring,” Gazzaley said during a telephone press briefing yesterday.
In an initial test, 174 individuals who ranged in age from their 20s to their 70s played the game while wearing electroencephalography (EEG) caps that read electrical activity in their brains.
Then, 16 healthy older adults (ages 60 to 85) took the game home to play on laptops three times a week for a month. They then returned to the lab to play the game wearing the EEG sensors again. Before and after this training, the participants went through a battery of cognitive tests, designed to measure skills such as memory and attention.
After training, the older adults showed improvements in their multitasking skill, measured by how little their performance dropped when the driving task was added on top of the symbol task. In fact, they scored better than untrained 20-year-olds. They also maintained this skill for 6 months after the training, without further practice.
The gamers showed changes in the rhythmic firing of neurons in the part of the brain known as midline frontal theta. This response, which is thought to be associated with memory and attention, occurred right after a new target symbol appeared on the screen and was more pronounced in younger players. But after the older players trained, this pattern strengthened, suggesting that NeuroRacer changes key mechanisms in the aging brain, Gazzaley argues.
Indeed, even outside the video game world, people who trained with NeuroRacer saw improvements on certain tests of memory and attention, the group reports online today in Nature. The older gamers showed gains of about 100 milliseconds in the speed of their response to a test of working memory—the ability to hold something in the mind briefly and then recall it—while there were no improvements in the control groups (who either didn’t play the game or weren’t forced to do the driving and sign recognition tasks simultaneously). The gamers also improved on a test of sustained attention, where they had to remain vigilant and react quickly to a change on the screen.
Smith calls these gains “pretty impressive,” considering that the subjects trained only for 12 hours. Neuroscientist Arthur Kramer of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, agrees that the results are “very promising,” but he says that some of the most important questions about the game’s value, including “Can it keep me out of the nursing home longer?” can’t be answered from this study. The potential benefits may be revealed by future research on behavior—such as remembering tasks throughout the day and driving safely—in larger groups of adults.
Meanwhile, Gazzaley plans to develop games to improve cognitive skills in other groups, including people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or depression.