Teaching Old Brains New Tricks With a Videogame

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If granny went up against her grandson in a video game, don’t necessarily bet against age.

At least not if the game involves multi-tasking skills. In a provocative study published in the journal Nature, researchers at the University of California San Francisco found that senior citizens trained on a multi-tasking video game beat untrained 20-year-olds, and that their gains, measured in terms of greater accuracy in achieving the goals of the game, lasted at least six months. The seniors also showed improvements in memory and vigilance, which were not specifically trained by the video exercise.

The study reverses the conventional wisdom about the effects of video games on the brain—some work, which has focused on younger children engrossed by gaming, showed that it can have detrimental effects on concentration and cognitive skills. In this investigation, however, the scientists demonstrated that video games can promote positive changes in the brain, and also confirms that elderly noggins have a far greater capacity for change and improvement— or neuroplasticity — than researchers previously suspected.

“It’s a dramatic finding,” says Scott Barry Kaufman, adjunct associate professor of psychology at New York University, who was not connected with the research, “The thing that jumped out at me was that 79-year-olds can be smarter than 20-year-olds.  That’s incredible and shows that there’s still a really large amount of neuroplasticity, even in the latest stages of life.”

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While the ability to multi-task has its detriments— paying attention to too many things at once is always less efficient than focusing on just one —it is critical for many daily tasks and can help to keep the brain sharp, as the study showed.

When the scientists first tested the participants, who ranged in age from 20 years to 79 years, the younger volunteers showed better ability to juggle racing a virtual car on a winding track and pressing a button when prompted by a designated road sign, than the older volunteers. “We found that [multi-tasking] declined  linearly [with] each decade of life,” lead author Dr. Adam Gazzaley, director of the Neuroscience Imaging Center at the University of California San Francisco, said at a press conference.

That’s because the older you get, the more difficult it is to filter out distractions, switch smoothly from one task to another and coordinate multiple steps and simultaneous actions. Such skills are essential for driving, since operating a car requires simultaneously being aware of your surroundings, navigating road signs and directions and being able to accelerate and brake at the appropriate times.

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As part of the experiment, the researchers allowed a different set of older adults, aged 67 to 85 to play the racing game with the multi-tasking sign prompts on their laptops at home for one hour, three days a week for a month, and another group of seniors to simply play the driving game only or a version of the game in which they just responded to the sign prompts to press the appropriate button. When these participants returned to play the game in the lab, their differences in speed and accuracy were dramatic. While multi-tasking generally impairs performance compared to single tasking, the training reduced the deficits that multi-tasking caused. Before the training, the older people did 64% worse when multi-tasking compared to single tasking.  But after the month-long training, they showed only a 16% reduction in performance in both driving without crashing and responding to the sign prompts. Even more encouraging, that improvement bested that of the untrained 20 year-olds, who showed a 27% reduction on average in performance when they did both tasks simultaneously, compared to when they performed them one at a time.

“It exceeded both of the controls and also exceeded levels attained by 20 year-olds who only played the game a single time,” says Gazzaley.

Prior research on videogame “brain training” programs found that while older people do improve their gaming performance, such gains don’t translate into better memory or cognitive performance in real life.  But this study showed that the game’s benefits carried over into better performance on tests of working memory and attention— both of which are critical for daily living.

While the trained seniors weren’t given the ultimate test of real-world driving, Gazzaley says the results strongly suggest that training could potentially improve everyday skills. The researchers were able to show that the changes in performance paralleled changes in brain activity as measured by EEG.  Those who improved most on an EEG measure linked to attention and mental control also showed the most improvement in multi-tasking and sustained attention after the experiment ended. “The change in brain measurements from before to after correlated with how well multi-tasking [improvement] was sustained six months later,” Gazzaley says. That implies that the training may produce brain changes necessary for improving cognitive functions.

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The researchers don’t currently have plans to make the game commercially available, they are trying to create a “therapeutic” version that would be available to physicians, who would provide the training  to their patients. First, however, they need to test the strategy on other populations that show impairment in cognitive control— like people with schizophrenia or those with mild cognitive impairment, to document that the brain and cognitive changes are consistent and reliable.

Gazzaley also cautions that these results aren’t an endorsement of game in general, or of the effectiveness of commercial “brain training” programs.  But they do show that it is possible to train older brains, even if it requires a high-tech, new-fangled approach.