Can video games help reverse cognitive decline in old age?

  • Scientists believe that playing brain-training video games may help reverse the natural decline in cognitive abilities among older people.

    Scientists have found that 60-year-olds that played a custom-designed video game for 12 hours over a month ended up improving their multitasking abilities to levels that better those achieved by 20-year-olds who played the game for the first time. The subjects that took part also retained those improvements six months later.Game Pad

    Adam Gazzaley from the University of California said that "through challenging your brain, you can drive plasticity and improve its function". Mr Gazzaley and his team's findings have suggested that the ageing brain is more "plastic" than previously thought which means that it can retain a greater ability to reshape itself in response to the environment and can therefore be improved with the use of properly designed games.

    The game which Gazzaley and his team asked participants to play was called "NeuroRacer" and involves driving a car along a hilly, winding road whilst also having to press a button whenever they notice a target sign appear at the top of the screen.

    First Gazzaley assessed groups of healthy people at different ages and found that multitasking abilities declined with each extra decade of life from the age of 20 to 80. They measured how participants performed through a "multitasking cost".

    Participants aged between 60 and 85 who played the game for an hour three times a week over a month found that their multitasking cost dropped dramatically. "They went from a 65% cost to a 16% cost," said Gazzaley. "These games exceeded both that of an active control group as well as the non-contact control and they also exceeded levels attained by 20-year-olds who only played the game a single time." The improvement was still there six months later.

    Cognitive tests that were carried out by the researchers before and after the NeuroRacer sessions found that there were also improvements in their attention and working memory which were areas of cognition not directly targeted by the video game.

    Peter Etchells, a biologist at Bath Spa Universtiy says that Gazzaley's work was "a great example of how video games tailored to specific populations can be used to improve mental health. We hear a lot about how video games might be bad for us, but it's not really a simple, black-and-white story."

    Gazzaley is keen for people not to overinterpret the results as they are not directly comparable to exisiting commercial video games. "One thing I'm cautious about is that it's not blown out of proportion in that the conclusion from this is that video games are a panacea for all that ails us," he said. "The devil's in the details and this was a very carefully constructed game that was targeted to a known neural deficit and a population." He does say though that the results could be extrapolated to other situations.  

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