Can Video Games Improve Memory for Those Over 60?

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Researchers at UCSF reported in this week’s edition of Nature that people over the age of 60 who played a custom-designed video game improved not only in their ability to play the game, but in other cognitive areas as well, and the improvement remained at the six month follow-up evaluation. This news has many excited at the prospect that properly designed games can improve aging brains and protect against dementia.

What is the Game?

The game, called Neuro Racer, is a 3D video game. The player drives a car on the screen over a winding, hilly road using a hand control.  At unpredictable intervals, different signs pop up on the screen. The player has to “shoot down” the signs of a specific shape and color, using the hand not driving the car. The level of difficulty in the game increases as the player improves.

Credit: UCSF

The Structure of the Trial

Confirming that mental agility decreases with age.  The trial consisted of several distinct components.  In the first part, 174 people aged 20 to 79 (roughly 30 people per decade) played the game. All subjects were recruited at random through on line and newspaper ads. The results confirmed that a person’s ability to track 2 different streams of information simultaneously (referred to as multi-tasking) decreases generally in a linear fashion in each the decade. This data may cast further questions on the current theory that older people who sense their mental abilities are slowing down are likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.

Assessing the ability of older people to improve mental acuity.  The second trial focused solely on 46 people between the ages of 60 and 85.  They were tested to establish their baseline cognitive functioning and were then randomly assigned to one of 3 groups. Group 1, consisting of 16 people, played the multi-tasking version of the game. Group 2, consisting of 15 people, played a limited form of the  game, only having to respond to one set of information at a time (either drive or shoot down shapes). Group 3, consisting of 15 people, played no game at all. The subjects played the game for 1 hour a day, 3 days a week, for 4 weeks.

Trial Results

  • Group 1 alone demonstrated significant improvement in the ability to multi-task, with scores at the end of the month being better than the scores of those in their 20s who were playing the game for the first time.
  • Group 1 alone demonstrated significant improvement in general cognition, such as sustained attention and working memory (the memory used to guide in the moment decision making). As the game did not call upon these functions, it is hypothesized that the benefits of the game extend beyond improving skills needed to play the game, a unique finding for video games.
  • EEG tests showed for Group 1 marked increase in activity in the part of the brain that governs executive functioning.
  • The players were re-evaluated 6 months later, and players in Group 1 had sustained their higher level of functioning, even though they had not played the game in the intervening months.

Next Steps

The trial sample was so small in this study that there will need to be additional trials by independent researchers to confirm these impressive results. Some skepticism in in order as no other video game designer has been able to provide clear evidence that video games improve overall cognition, including a previous research study involving over 11,000 subjects, reported in Nature in 2010. Further, some of the principal researchers involved in the current study have created a company, Akili Interactive, to market the game to the public as an FDA approved therapy, raising some questions about objectivity.

Further testing hopefully will confirm the potential of this game and answer additional questions:

  • Does the game improve the cognition of those who have dementia?
  • Can playing the game delay or prevent the onset of dementia?
  • Does the game reduce other cognitive functions as it improves attention and working memory?
  • How often should one play the game for maximum benefit?
  • How long do the benefits of the game playing last?
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