Video Games Make Elderly Brains Sharper
September 5, 2013

Video Game Makes Aging Brains Sharper

[ Watch The Video: Older Adults Can Benefit From UCSF 3D Video Game ]

Michael Harper for - Your Universe Online

Research from the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) has shown that the human brain can change and improve all the way through old age. In a study designed to test the brain's ability to continue learning and growing, healthy older adults were asked to play a specially designed video game. The more the 60 to 85 year-old volunteers played the game, the better they became and the further they could progress through the levels.

The older volunteers improved their performance so much after time that they began outperforming 20-somethings who had just picked up the game for the first time. The study examined the way the brain - particularly the aging brain - multitasks, learns new skills and focuses on a certain item. The results are now published in the journal Nature.

Neuro-Racer is a 3D game developed specifically for the UCSF study in which gamers are asked to guide a car along a winding and looping track. Every so often a sign will appear on the screen and gamers must then press a button which corresponds to that particular sign. This is meant to test the multitasking capabilities of the brain. While normal distractions cause interference in the brain for people of all ages, the researchers say this interference increases as people get older.

“Normally, when you get better at something, it gets easier,” explained Adam Gazzaley, MD, PhD, UCSF associate professor of neurology, physiology and psychiatry and lead researcher in a statement. As the gamer improves their skills the more they play, the more difficult the levels of the game become. Even though the game becomes difficult, the volunteers still managed to improve their scores.

“The finding is a powerful example of how plastic the older brain is,” said Gazzaley.

In their first test Gazzaley and team asked 174 gamers ranging from their 20s to their 70s to wear an electroencephalography (EEG) cap as they played Neuro-Racer. Baseline readings were taken, and 16 of the aging adults - aged 60 to 85 - took the game home with them and played it on their laptops. They played three times a week for a month before returning to the UCSF labs to play while wearing the EEG cap once more.

After training the brain three times a week with Neuro-Racer, the older adults showed improvements in their ability to multitask, improvements they were able to hold on to for another 6 months after they quit playing the game.

When they studied the second batch of EEG data, Gazzaley and team found that the gamers’ brains changed the way they fired neurons associated with attention and memory. These neurons were fired sooner as well, occurring more quickly after the signs popped up on the Neuro-Racer screen. These signals in the aging gamers’ brains were even more pronounced than in the younger gamers' brains.

Gazzaley and team also studied the cognitive functions of each gamer young and old before asking them to take up their joysticks. Though certain cognitive abilities were not specifically targeted by the game as multitasking had been, these abilities were improved after playing the game.

“Neuro­Racer doesn’t demand too much of those particular abilities - so it appears that the multitasking challenge may put pressure on the entire cognitive control system, raising the level of all of its components, explained Gazzaley. He advises a development company called Akili which is currently working on delivering a commercialized version of Neuro-Racer.