Getting older often means mental acuity declines. Some studies have pointed to the idea that you can “exercise” the brain to keep the mind sharp. But it’s been hard to pin down what’s happening and how real the effect is.
A team at the University of California San Francisco, led by Adam Gazzaley, associate professor of neurology, physiology and psychiatry, tackled the problem using a video game. They tested a group of older adults with a 3-D driving game that involved hitting a button when the participant saw a specific sign. It turned out that playing the game really did improve a person’s multitasking skills.
The game was relatively simple: a player drove a car on a windy road, using a joystick to control it. When a specific sign popped up, for example, a red octagon like a stop sign, the participant was asked to push a button. If a different sign popped up, she was told to do nothing. If she hit the button at the wrong sign, it counted against her.
The researchers looked at the performance of a group of 16 people aged 60 to 85. They found that just 12 hours of training spread over a month dramatically improved the ability of the individuals in the group to pick out the right signs. Some people even did as well or better than 20-year-olds playing for the first time.
To make sure it was the game that was doing it, the team tested two other similarly sized groups of elderly people. One played a game where only driving or picking the sign was involved, while another didn’t play at all. Neither of the other two groups improved.
One interesting finding was that the improvement in the video game skills also translated to other, unrelated measured of cognitive ability, like being able to watch out for a specific thing in a boring environment and working memory. The benefits lasted six months. On top of that there were very real changes in the brain activity of the participants: game players’ brains showed more and better communication between different brain regions.
All of this lends some credence to the idea of mental exercise, and Gazzaley told a press conference that he hopes this kind of game can become a therapeutic tool.
The findings appear in the latest issue of the journal Nature.
Credit: The Gazzaley Lab