Brain Aging: What’s Nintendo Got to Do With It?

Grandpa and grandma may be wrestling the grandkids for the Nintendo, thanks to a study showing Brain Age can improve cognitive function

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Who says video games are a waste of time?

Researchers from Tohoku University in Japan show that elderly men and women playing the game Brain Age, made by Nintendo, can improve some of their declining cognitive abilities.

For the new study, 32 elderly Japanese participants were tested for cognitive function and then randomly assigned to play either Brain Age, which is touted by its makers as a “brain training game,” or the classic arcade game Tetris, in which players arrange an onslaught of differently shaped blocks to form a solid line,  for about 15 minutes per day, at least five days per week for four weeks. At the end of the four-week study period, the participants were then tested again for cognitive function.

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Relative to the Tetris group, the brain-training group showed signs of improved processing speed and executive function. (Executive function is involves organization and memory of details.) That benefit may be due to the fact that Brain Age, which includes a series of nine different games, was created based on research on elderly people with cognitive decline. The Brain Age participants played eight of the nine available games, which included word scrambles, arithmetic questions, reading passages they read aloud, a simplified virtual piano to play, and more. Calculating and reading skills were specifically included to improve activation of the prefrontal cortex, which is critical for learning and memory. The current study’s research team, which included Brain Age’s creator Ryuta Kawashima, believe that stimulating the prefrontal cortex also improves the brain’s processing speed and executive functions. While the players did indeed show improvements in these two areas, the Brain Age players did not, however, show benefit in other cognitive areas, such as attention or what the researchers call “global cognitive status.” And because the researchers did not specifically measure memory, they aren’t able to say whether playing Brain Age helped participants with their recall.

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Still, the study results may lead gamers and Nintendo fans to say ‘I told you so.’ But the scientists say the report’s most revealing conclusion may not really be about video-gaming at all. Instead, what’s more important is the possibility that cognitive function can improve in a relatively short period of time with something as simple as a portable video game player. With just a few short weeks of training, the elderly study participants saw noticeable improvement in their skills. “These results suggest that there is a possibility which the elderly could improve executive functions and processing speed in short term training,” the authors write.

Which, of course, would be good news for Nintendo.

The findings are published this week in the journal PLoS One. Other than Kawashima, no other scientists involved with the experiment claim to have a connection to the commercial product.