AGING
September 12, 2013

Like A Spin Class for Your Brain

A video game that works key brain circuits helps bring aging brains' performance up to speed.

Usually, video gamers are in their late teens to mid-20s, but millennials may soon find that their controllers have been taken over by parents and grandparents. Why? Because video games hold promise as a way to improve aging adults' brain function.

As people age, cognitive control, the ability to direct mental processes to deal with a variety of mental stimuli at once, can suffer. A video game created by a team of brain researchers basically gives these multitasking networks a workout. The result: a brain that performs far better.

According to a new study, when people over 60 played specialized 3-D video games, cognitive control improved. “The finding is a powerful example of how plastic [able to change and make new connections] the older brain is,” said Adam Gazzaley, the senior author on the study, in a press release.

As the older ‘drivers’ became better at NeuroRacer, their brains' activity began to resemble that of young adults.

The research provides some scientific support for the growing field of brain fitness. Brain fitness has come under fire because researchers have until recently provided little evidence that such “brain training” produces significant changes.

The game Gazzaley and his colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF designed, NeuroRacer, requires players to race a car around a track while different road signs pop up. Drivers are instructed to look out for a specific sign and ignore the others, and to press a button whenever that particular sign appears. The need to multitask by switching rapidly from driving to responding to the signs generates interference in the brain that undermines performance. The researchers found that this interference increases as people age.

The 60- to 85-year-old participants received 12 hours of training, spread out over a month. During this time, their performance on NeuroRacer improved until they were better than 20-something participants who played the game for the first time.

The training also improved the participants’ working memory and their ability to pay attention. In addition, the older study participants could still play a mean game of NeuroRacer six months later.

As performance improves, the game gets harder.

Gazzaley, an associate professor of neurology, physiology, and psychiatry and director of the Neuroscience Imaging Center at UCSF, believes that playing NeuroRacer can bring about improvements in the network of neurons involved in cognitive control, which facilitates the pursuit of specific goals by allowing the brain to function flexibly.

The researchers measured activity in the prefrontal cortex region of the brain, and how well it traveled between the frontal and posterior regions. As the older “drivers” became better at NeuroRacer, their brains' activity began to resemble that of young adults.

In fact, the team reports that the training-induced changes in this neural network predicted how well participants were able to maintain sustained attention.

The findings could have many applications. Other brain disorders like attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, and dementia are also associated with deficits in cognitive control.

You can view a video of the game in use here. The study is published online ahead of print in the journal, Nature.

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