(By Evelyn M. Rusli)
“Scientists spent about a year designing “NeuroRacer,” a computer game in which a user navigates a race car along a winding track, while also hitting a button on a controller, whenever a green circle appears. As the user improves, the game adapts to maintain a consistent level of difficulty. The game is designed to challenge a person’s multitasking ability — to push them to switch between distinct tasks, rapidly and accurately. As part of the study, older participants (aged 60 to 85 years) trained on the game for 12 hours over the course of the month.“
In the future, your doctor may prescribe you a video game.
In a groundbreaking new study at the University of California, San Francisco, scientists found that older adults improved cognitive controls such as multitasking and the ability to sustain attention by playing a specially designed video game — and that the effects can be long lasting.
The study, to be published in the scientific journal Nature on Thursday, is part of a broader effort to understand whether specially designed video games can help treat neurological disorders, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and even depression. There is growing evidence, researchers say, that videogames could eventually become therapies on par, or used in tandem, with ingestible medications.
The new study “is a powerful example of how plastic the older brain is,” said Adam Gazzaley, a director of the UCSF Neuroscience Imaging Center and a co-author of the study. Gazzaley is also the co-founder and advisor of Akili Interactive Labs, a start-up focused on designing these types of video games.
This research turns the traditional view of games on its head. Much of the research linking video games to our minds has focused on its detrimental effects. There is some evidence, for instance, that playing violent games, heightens aggression in players and hurts the brain’s ability to process emotions.
However, an expanding body of research is looking at the link between video games and so-called cognitive control, or the brain’s information-processing functions, such as memory, attention, decision-making and creativity. According to one 2010 study, professional gamers had response times comparable to fighter jet pilots. Another recent study from North Carolina State University also showed a strong correlation between video game play and the emotional well-being of senior adults.
In the UCSF report, scientists spent about a year designing “NeuroRacer,” a computer game in which a user navigates a race car along a winding track, while also hitting a button on a controller, whenever a green circle appears. As the user improves, the game adapts to maintain a consistent level of difficulty. The game is designed to challenge a person’s multitasking ability — to push them to switch between distinct tasks, rapidly and accurately. As part of the study, older participants (aged 60 to 85 years) trained on the game for 12 hours over the course of the month.
The study found that after training, the older adults were able to perform at a higher level than untrained 20-year-olds and that the positive effects lasted for at least six months.
The researchers write that their findings are the first evidence that a custom-designed video game can serve “as a powerful tool for cognitive enhancement.”
Ann Linsley, 65, a participant in the study and a former real estate executive, says prior to NeuroRacer, she had difficulty focusing and often forgot the purpose behind her actions. At first, she found the game very frustrating but after several hours, Linsley says “something snapped.”
Eventually, the game felt easier, and she noticed that real life tasks also became easier to manage. “I feel like my brain is working better– even if it’s just to drive a car in a videogame,” Linsley says.
According to researchers, Linsley’s improvements are rooted in the brain’s plasticity, or ability to mold itself, even in older age, and the apparent interconnectivity of our brains’ cognitive control functions.
Studies have shown that as we age, we are increasingly affected by distractions and have more trouble switching between tasks. The UCSF researchers, however, theorized that this decline of cognitive control is not fixed, and that the brain can be improved by being immersed in an “adaptive, high-interference environment.”
The idea, according to Gazzaley, was that putting pressure on the brain in one area of cognitive control — in this instance, multitasking — could create a positive halo effect, improving other aspects of cognitive control. The older adults who went through NeuroRacer training, for example, showed improvements in working memory and the ability to sustain attention.
Brain scans of the older test subjects showed that activity in the prefrontal cortex, the area most associated with cognitive control, began to resemble activity in younger adults.
Though the research is early, the findings raise the question of whether video games can be designed and targeted to rewire our brains to fight a whole range of brain disorders. One hope is that these therapies can replace or reduce the use of prescription medications or more invasive medical procedures.
A new version of NeuroRacer is being developed by Akili, which has licensed the intellectual property behind the game to create a graphically rich version. Akili is working to get approval from the Food and Drug Administration to classify its game as an ADHD treatment.
Bringing these games to market can be a slow process. The NeuroRacer study took about four years and it could be years to reach FDA approval, if it ever does.
The study of videogames as mental therapies is nascent. Douglas Gentile, head of the Media Research Lab at Iowa State University, says it is impossible to classify videogames as a group as “good” or “bad” for people. The onus, he said, is on game developers and scientists to carefully think through all the possible factors that might influence the brain. Even so, he thinks it is still unclear how effective videogame therapies can be in solving brain disorders associated with age.
“The science is still too early to know how much it can help,” Gentile said.
Thomas Hummer, an assistant research professor at Indiana University, also believes that more research needs to be done to understand what kind of far-reaching effects videogame therapies can have, and if there are potential side effects. “The strengthening of one cognitive skill might simply bias the brain to a certain cognitive strategy or process. It’s important that any shifts don’t have unexpected costs for other skills,” Hummer said.
UCSF’s Gazzaley is now working on different games that will target other aspects of cognitive control, including rhythm and long term memory. Scientists at UCSF are looking at ways to make videogames adaptive to real-time brain activity, hooking-up one’s brain to a videogame via sensors.
“There’s always the potential for good and bad,” said Gazzaley. “This research shows that video games can be quite serious.”
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