Sixty-five-year-old Ann Linsey was starting to worry about her increasingly short attention-span.
She enrolled in a study carried out by the University of California, which tested whether playing custom-designed video games might help reverse the natural decline in cognitive abilities among older people.
The results of the study, recently published in Nature magazine, are startling.
Neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley found that 60-year-olds who played a game called ‘NeuroRacer’ 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 later.
As Gazzaley explains, cognitive tests carried out before and after the ‘NeuroRacer’ sessions also revealed improvements in participants’ attention and working memory, areas of cognition that were not directly targeted by the video game: “We found that their multi-tasking abilities on the video game itself improved after playing it for a month. But we also found that other cognitive control abilities, that we did not directly train, such as their sustained attention and their working memory abilities, also improved after game play.”
Brain activity was recorded whilst participants played ‘NeuroRacer’ – a game which involves driving a car along a hilly, winding road and, at the same time, pressing a button whenever you notice a target sign. Electroencephalography showed that as participants’ skills increased, so did activity in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain – the area associated with cognitive control.
The 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. As Gazzaley explains: “I think this shows that video game mechanics can be a really powerful tool to reshape the brain. Hopefully it will help in both people who are healthy and unhealthy.”
Whilst Gazzaley is keen to stress these findings do not necessarily translate to existing, commercial video games, like ‘Halo 2’ or ‘Call of Duty: Black Ops’, ‘NeuroRacer’ is a great example of how video games tailored to specific populations can dramatically improve our lives.