Brain-training video games may help reverse cognitive decline in old age

06.09.2013 18:04

Playing brain-training video games
may help reverse the natural
decline in cognitive abilities among
older people, according to
They found that 60-year-olds who
played a custom-designed video
game for 12 hours over the course
of a month improved their
multitasking abilities to levels
better than those achieved by 20-
year-olds playing the game for the
first time. The subjects retained
those improvements six months
"Through challenging your brain,
you can drive plasticity and
improve its function," said Adam
Gazzaley of the University of
California, San Francisco. His
team's findings suggest the ageing
brain is more "plastic" than
previously thought, meaning it
retains a greater ability to reshape
itself in response to the
environment and could therefore
be improved with properly
designed games.
In their experiment , published on
Wednesday in Nature, Gazzaley's
team asked participants to play a
game the researchers had designed
called "NeuroRacer" which
involved driving a car along a
hilly, winding road. At the same
time, they had to press a button
whenever they noticed a target sign
– a green circle, say – appear at the
top of the screen. Another version
of the game involved just pressing
buttons when the signs turned up
on screen, without having to drive
the car.
The researchers measured the
"multitasking cost" for the
participants as the change in
accuracy from doing the sign task
by itself, to doing the sign task and
driving the car at the same time. A
-50% cost, for example, meant the
participant had a 50% reduction in
their accuracy as a result of having
to multitask.
Gazzaley first assessed groups of
healthy people at different ages and
found, unsurprisingly, that
multitasking abilities declined with
each extra decade of life from the
age of 20 to 80: 20-year-olds had
an average multitasking cost of
around -25%, 30-year-olds had an
average cost of around -40% and
70-year-olds had a multitasking
cost of more than -65%.
The subjects, aged 60 and 85,
played the game for an hour three
times a week over the course of a
month. As a result, the team found
their average 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 carried out by the
researchers before and after the
sessions with NeuroRacer also
revealed improvements in their
attention and working memory,
areas of cognition that were not
directly targeted by the video game.
Peter Etchells, a psychologist at
Bath Spa University who studies the
effects of computer games on the
brain, said 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."
Robert Howard of the Institute of
Psychiatry at Kings College London
said that reports of ways to deal
with cognitive decline tended to
generate a great deal of interest in
older people and those who worry
that they might be in the early
stages of disorders such as
Alzheimer's disease. But he added:
"We are still a very long way from
being able to recommend cognitive
training as a preventative or
treatment measure."
Gazzaley said his findings were not
directly comparable to existing
commercial video games and he
was keen for people not to
overinterpret the results.
"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
But he said that the results could be
extrapolated to other situations. It
was a reasonable hypothesis, he
said, to speculate that training with
video games might help people of
all ages keep up their cognitive
reserves and that it might even be
useful for people with the many
neurological and psychiatric
conditions that also affect cognitive
Tom Kirkwood, director of the
Institute for Ageing and Health at
Newcastle University, said training
with video games is known to
result in improved cognitive
performance. "It would be
surprising indeed if this was not
underpinned by measurable
changes in neural activity," he said.
"It would also be surprising if
training effects did not persist for
a while. Just think of all those
music teachers who would be out of
jobs if this were not the case. In
this connection, it is a bit
surprising that the authors did not
compare the benefits and
persistence of training effects in
different age groups. It would have
been especially interesting to know
whether older adults were
significantly less trainable than
younger adults, or if the results
were relatively comparable."
Kirkwood added that, in
experiments of this kind, it was
tough to control for the benefit that
came from reinforcement of self-
belief when engaging with a new
challenge. "Those in the 'multi-
tasking' group will inevitably have
been aware that they were doing
something quite demanding which
might have generated wider
psychological and cognitive