Playing brain-training video games may help reverse the natural decline in cognitive abilities among older people, according to scientists.
They found that 60-year-olds who played a custom-designed video game 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.
“Through challenging your brain, you can drive plasticity and improve its function,” said Adam Gazzaley of the University of California, San Francisco.
His team’s 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.
In their experiment, published yesterday in Nature, Gazzaley’s team asked participants to play a game the researchers had designed called NeuroRacer which involved driving a car along a hilly, winding road. At the same time, they had to press a button whenever they noticed a target sign — a green circle, say — appear at the top of the screen. Another version of the game involved just pressing buttons when the signs turned up on screen, without having to drive the car.
The researchers measured the “multitasking cost” for the participants as the change in accuracy from doing the sign task by itself, to doing the sign task and driving the car at the same time. A minus-50 percent cost, for example, meant the participant had a 50 percent reduction in their accuracy as a result of having to multitask.
Gazzaley first assessed groups of healthy people at different ages and found that multitasking abilities declined with each extra decade of life from the age of 20 to 80: 20-year-olds had an average multitasking cost of around minus-25 percent, 30-year-olds had an average cost of around minus-40 percent and 70-year-olds had a multitasking cost of more than minus-65 percent.
The subjects, aged 60 and 85, played the game for an hour three times a week over the course of a month. As a result, the team found their average multitasking cost dropped dramatically.
The improvement was still there six months later.
Cognitive tests carried out by the researchers before and after the sessions with NeuroRacer also revealed improvements in their attention and working memory, areas of cognition that were not directly targeted by the video game.