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Playing video games boosts cognitive performance in seniors

Elvira Manzano
01 Dec 2013

Video game training can improve cognitive performance in healthy older adults, new research has found.

The study involving participants aged 60-85 years showed that 12 hours of video game training spread over 1 month increased their multi-tasking capabilities, as well as cognitive control (working memory and sustained attention), better than younger adults who played it for the first time. The improvements were sustained 6 months after the training had ended. There were also increases in midline frontal theta, or low frequency oscillations in the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with attention. [Nature 2013; 501:97-101]

The study researchers warned the findings should not be taken to suggest that any activity or video game would improve cognition in seniors. However, it does offer evidence of generalized positive effects of video game training on cognitive control of older adults, with enhancements comparable to those of younger adults who are habitual video game players, said Associate Professor Christopher Chen from the Department of Pharmacology, National University of Singapore.

Chen, who was not involved in the study, said video game participation may be a potential intervention strategy to increase cognitive reserve in seniors.

“The study by researchers at the University of California in San Franciso, US, provides optimism for use of an adaptive interference-rich, video game approach as a therapeutic tool for the diverse populations that suffer from cognitive control deficits. It also stresses the importance of a targeted training approach.”

The researchers used a custom-designed three dimensional (3-D) race car video game (NeuroRacer) and made the seniors drive at full speed in between road signs for up to 12 hours on a laptop. The game gets harder as they succeed and easier when they get frustrated. Driving up winding mountain roads while picking out occasional road signs made them work at both skills. This keeps them challenged and engaged while having fun, Chen said. “Learning also improves when the brain’s reward system is turned on, such as when someone is having fun.”

However, the most meaningful endpoints for intervention in seniors, according to this clinician-scientist, would be “slowed rate of age-related cognitive decline or reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.”

Controlled studies that use such endpoints are however undoubtedly expensive and have to be conducted over long periods of time. Most likely, studies should also use multiple intervention strategies, including exercise, cognitive and social stimulation, Chen said.

In addition to that, a validated measure of cognitive reserve (brain capacity built up during early life), should be used when assessing cognition in seniors. This does not preclude the use of more challenging tests that are pathology-specific and biomarkers in patients with high cognitive reserve. Higher rate of decline after diagnosis may also be relevant for clinical trials, he added.

Finally, clinicians need to have a better understanding of the neuroimaging correlates, underlying genetic factors and the role of cerobrovascular factors on cognitive reserve. “We need to develop and show efficacy of interventions to improve cognitive reserve and brain resilience,” Chen concluded.

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