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New UCSF Lab Studies How Video Games Affect Our Brains

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Gaming, EEG and MRI brain scanning, and -- eventually -- a closed-loop system will help scientists explore the theraputic uses of video games. (Josh Cassidy/KQED)

Gaming, EEG and MRI brain scanning, and — eventually — a closed-loop system will help scientists explore the theraputic uses of video games. (Josh Cassidy/KQED)

This week the University of California, San Francisco debuts a new laboratory devoted to asking whether video games can do more than turn us into couch potatoes.

There are no test tubes at the Neuroscape Lab. Instead, it looks like some billionaire’s personal video game parlor: dimly lit in a palate of dark grays, punctuated by a red gaming chair and a red circle on the floor where gamers stand (and jump, squat and lunge) during motion-capture games.

Exploring the “Glass Brain”

The room is dominated by two large screens. One displays the game itself. On the day I visited, it was a futuristic movement-and-concentration game where an avatar on the screen mirrors the player’s body movements as he or she scores by smacking down floating golden orbs.

The second screen displays what Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at UCSF, calls “the glass brain,” a mesmerizing, slowly rotating image of a brain pulsing with flashes of light.

The "glass brain" projects EEG data onto an MRI scan of the player's brain. (Josh Cassidy/KQED)

The “glass brain” projects EEG data onto an MRI scan of the player’s brain. (Josh Cassidy/KQED)

The glass brain is a mash-up of two brain scanning techniques. One is static, an MRI image of the player’s brain, captured in a scanner before the game begins.

Superimposed on the MRI are signals collected by another brain-scanning technique used by neuroscientists: electroencephalography, or EEG. Normally, EEG read-outs look like the horizontal zig-zags of a seismograph. On the glass brain, they’re translated into flashes of red, green and yellow streaks, corresponding to the electric firing between billions of synapses inside in the brain.

Right now, there’s a slight delay between the player’s action and when the corresponding brain activity shows up on screen. But technicians are working to close that gap, says Gazzaley, “so that we can see an event in the brain right at the moment it’s happening in the world.”

In search of “the world’s first FDA-approved prescribed video game.”

The next step is to build the game so that it responds to the player’s brain activity, sensing where a particular task activates the brain, and then adjusting to challenge that particular network.


A Feedback Loop Between Brain and Game

“The game will essentially understand where the weaknesses are, and then change the mechanics to put pressure on those processes to lead to improvements,” Gazalley says.

He is one of several researchers trying to understand whether video games could be used as a therapy for people struggling with memory problems, for example, or ADHD. Gazzaley believes games he’s developing could become “the world’s first FDA-approved prescribed video game.”

UCSF neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley runs the Neuroscape lab. (Josh Cassidy/KQED)

UCSF neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley runs the Neuroscape lab. (Josh Cassidy/KQED)

Success will hinge on something called “transference,” says C. Shawn Green, a scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who studies the effects of games on the brain.

“The big crux in the field at the moment is how do we produce really broad effects?” says Green.

Does Video Game Success Transfer to the Real World?

In other words, it’s clear that video games do one thing very well: train people to become better gamers. But whether those results “transfer” outside the game into the real world is a source of lively debate among neuroscientists.

In a paper published in Nature last September, UCSF’s Gazzaley and his co-authors showed that older adults were better able to multitask in the real world after training on a game called NeuroRacer.

UCSF's Neuroscape Lab was produced in partnership with several high tech companies. (Josh Cassidy/KQED)

UCSF’s Neuroscape Lab was produced in partnership with several gaming and virtual-realty tech companies. (Josh Cassidy/KQED)

In other words, the training “generalized,” says Robert Knight, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC Berkeley and one of Gazzaley’s former advisors. “They didn’t only get better at the task [in the video game]; the performance generalized to other tasks.”

Whether those results will hold in future studies, and whether similar benefits show up in people with, for example, autism, ADHD or stroke, are questions scientists at Neuroscape and elsewhere will continue to explore.

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About the Author ()

As a radio reporter for KQED Science, Amy's grappled with archaic maps, brain fitness exercises, albino redwood trees, and jet-lagged lab rats, as well as modeled a wide variety of hard hats and construction vests. Long before all that, she learned to cut actual tape interning for a Latin American news show at WBAI in New York, then took her first radio job as a producer for Pulse of the Planet. Since then, Amy has been an editor at Salon.com, the editor of Terrain Magazine, and has produced stories for NPR, Living on Earth, Philosophy Talk, and Pop Up Magazine. She's also a founding editor of Meatpaper Magazine.