How a Video Game Can Make an Aging Brain Young(er) Again

By Angela Hart

Who knew playing video games might be good for you?

A provocative new study from researchers at UC San Francisco shows that playing a specially designed video game increased the ability to multitask for people in their 60s, 70s and 80s.

Adam Gazzaley of UCSF’s Neuroscience Imaging Center led the study. He recruited 174 people over 60 to play NeuroRacer, a custom-built game that forced participants to navigate winding roads, quickly turn left and right, go uphill and downhill — and then click a button whenever a distracting green sign pops up. Take a look:

The participants played the video game three times a week for a month and improved cognitive functions of the brain, not only in multitasking but also in paying attention for longer time spans. In fact, they improved so much that they reached the level of an untrained 20-year-old. This is the first time this kind of improvement has been demonstrated, the researchers noted in their study.

Gazzaley explained more on KQED’s “Forum” recently. He said the idea is to identify the brain’s “plasticity,” meaning its ability to change even as it ages — a concept that brain researchers haven’t always thought possible.

“We’ve been showing in the brain what happens as we get older,” Gazzaley said. “Working memory and sustained attention decline. After telling that sort of bad news for the last decade, around five years ago, I got inspired to see if we could do anything about it.”

The overall goal, Gazzaley said, was to identify what changes in the brain by targeting what he called the “sweet spot” in testing study participants. The video game was designed at a level where it’s not too difficult to be frustrating, but not so easy that it becomes boring.

“We think that this maximally targets plasticity in the brain by pushing it right at that level of your ability,” Gazzaley told “Forum” host Michael Krasny.

The study was published in the journal Nature. The authors wrote that “a custom-designed video game can … serve as a powerful tool for cognitive enhancement.”

Gazzaley acknowledged that his approach has its critics.

“I think that the field is controversial, but not because of the foundational concept that the brain is plastic and can change,” Gazzaley said. “Every neuroscientist I’ve ever met believes in the plasticity of the brain. The question is — and I guess the controversy that ensues around it is — what is the most appropriate way of tapping that plasticity.”

In designing the study, Gazzaley took his initial idea to his video game friends, who developed the game. Gazzaley was aware of earlier research showing that first-person shooter video games played by younger adults also improved brain functions, such as distraction resistance and the ability to maintain attention levels.

“It’s exciting,” Gazzaley said. “It shows that video games and the dynamics involved in them can be used to have very powerful impacts on the brain, especially when targeted.” He said he doesn’t expect that this one study is a definitive answer “but rather a step in how we can go about carefully developing and then validating our tools to change the brain in an impactful way.”

Gazzaley and other researchers are now using the brain-scanning technology built into NeuroRacer to develop more advanced versions of the game, and continue to experiment on improving brain functions.

“In terms of being balanced, this does not imply that all video games are effective,” Gazzaley said. “There’s a lot more research that needs to be done to understand it.”

Learn more:

Listen to Adam Gazzaley on KQED’s Forum:

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