A specially designed video game called NeuroRacer improved memory in older adults
Video games seem like a mindless way to waste time, but a growing body of evidence suggests that if they are carefully designed to meet certain standards, they can dramatically improve brain power.
Studies have shown that specially made games can help people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), early stages of dementia, brain injury, stroke, "chemobrain," addiction and other conditions.
Now a new study, in the scientific journal Nature, out Wednesday, confirms that they can help healthy people, as well.
After 12 hours of playing a road game designed to improve attention and focus, healthy people ages 60 to 79 performed as well as people a half-century younger. The improvements were still evident six months later, and they extended beyond the skills learned for the game.
Similar games might help older people improve their driving skills, for instance, or keep middle-aged people from losing their ability to multitask as they age.
This is not to justify a young person's obsession with Grand Theft Auto, World of Warcraft or anything on Xbox or Wii, scientists said.
To be beneficial, a game has to be designed with a specific goal in mind (say, improving attention), meet certain criteria and be proven effective through research, said Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist and director of the Neuroscience Imaging Center at the University of California-San Francisco, who led the new research.
"I don't want people to conclude that video games are some panacea for all that ails us," he said in a telephone news conference.
But brain scans confirmed that the 16 older people who played the game for 12 hours at home on a laptop got better at multitasking, paying attention in dull situations and remembering things short-term.
At the start of the study, the older people's performance on the driving game fell off by 65% when they had to point out certain street signs in addition to staying on the road. After practice, their performance dropped just 16% with the extra task - less than the falloff for 20-somethings. Brain scans and cognitive tests confirmed the improvement.
Gazzaley said key aspects of his game, called NeuroRacer, which took more than a year to design, included:
• Getting harder when people succeed and easier when they're getting frustrated. This will keep them challenged and engaged, but not turned off.
• Providing an "immersive" environment, game-speak for a playing field that draws people in through 3-D imagery and a constantly changing scene.
• Having fun. Research has shown that learning improves when the brain's reward system is turned on, such as when someone is having fun.
• Forcing people to keep driving up winding mountain roads while they were spotting the occasional signs - so they had to work continuously at both skills, and couldn't trade off one for the other.
Gazzaley is working with a game-design company, Akili Interactive Labs of Boston, to commercialize similar games, eventually for conditions such as ADHD and depression, as well as healthy aging.
One innovative aspect of the new study was that participants practiced the game at home on a laptop, rather than in a lab.
Future versions of the games will be designed for tablets and phones, to make the training accessible to more people, "and not just relegated to their living room," said W. Eddie Martucci, Akili's vice president for research and development.
The study confirms one essential truth about the human brain: It never stops learning, said Michael Merzenich, an emeritus professor at UCSF and a co-founder of another brain-game developer, Posit Science.
"Anybody at any age can be better at almost any thing - better tomorrow than you are today," he said.
- by Karen Weintraub, USA TODAY