Are video games the fountain of youth?

By JOSH SCARALIA | September 12, 2013

In recent years, a new genre of video game has emerged: “brain training” games.  The makers of these games claim that they will improve your cognitive function, intelligence, and attention.  However, these claims have undergone plenty of scrutiny and debate as there has been no published data that supports them. Until now.

Led by Adam Gazzaley, MD, PhD, a group of scientists at UC San Francisco have reported that they have found definitive proof that it is possible to reverse the effects of aging on the brain through the use of a specially designed video game that aims at improving cognitive control.

The game is simple; participants drive a car around a 3D track as a variety of signs move past them.  They then hit a certain button upon the arrival of a specific sign.  The game requires participants to quickly change from one action to the other and generates quite a bit of brain interference which is known to increase greatly with age. Participants played the game for 12 hours over the course of a month.  The results?  After only one month of gameplay, participants of ages between 60 and 85 showed brain activity equivalent to that of 20 years olds that played the same game!

However, the same argument that has been applied to similar “brain training” games (such as “Brain Age” and “Big Brain Academy” that were released for the Nintendo DS) applied to this one: aren’t participants simply adjusting to the gameplay?  Aren’t the improved results simply a measure of how many times participants have played the game?

Brain imaging results seem to indicate otherwise.

After playing the game, which was aptly named “NeuroRacer,” electroencephalograph (EEG) data showed that there were noticeable changes in brain activity.  Scientists measured the midline frontal theta waves (low frequency oscillations) in the prefrontal cortex as well as the relationship between these oscillations in the frontal and posterior regions of the brain.  As the older gamers “gamed” more, these oscillations began to mimic those of younger adults.

These oscillations are known to be key markers for healthy cognitive control. In addition to this, the scientists found that the training-induced changes in these oscillations correlated to improved results on a different brain test; the Test of Variables of Attention (TOVA).

The TOVA is an objective, neuropsychological test that measures a person’s attention and memory compared against people who are known to not have ADHD.  This test has been shown to accurately identify 87% of people without ADHD, 84% of people with non-hyperactive ADHD, and 90% of people with hyperactive ADHD.

In reference to these findings, Gazzaley says that they suggest a common neural root of cognitive control and memory that is improved by the high-interference conditions of “NeuroRacer.”

If these findings hold to be true, the applications can go far beyond improving brain health in elderly people. There are implications for improving the treatment of ADHD, depression, and dementia, all of which are linked in their association with defects in cognitive control.

Follow-up studies using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and transcranial electrical stimulation are needed to verify exactly how the neural network changes as a result of the game.

But now for the real question; could Mario Kart have the same effects as NeuroRacer?

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