Someday doctors may tell you to beat two levels and call them in the morning. Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, have found that a driving videogame can improve memory and attention among older players, lending new scientific support to the burgeoning field of therapeutic software.
In the game, called NeuroRacer, players drive a car along a winding road while keeping an eye out for road signs that occasionally pop into view. They’re supposed to click on certain signs and ignore others while maintaining control of the car. It’s not exactly Grand Theft Auto, but it requires players to multitask, something that becomes increasingly difficult as we get older. A preliminary study of the game showed just how badly age wears down our ability to switch attention: people in their 20s were 26 percent worse at choosing the right signs when they had to drive at the same time, while people in their 60s and 80s were 64 percent worse.
But the exciting thing about the study is that it found elderly players got better—a lot better—with practice, and that this improvement carried over to other mental activities. After playing the game for 12 hours over the course of a month, players in their 60s and 80s outdid 20-somethings playing for the first time. More importantly, separate tests found that this improvement carried over into other cognitive functions. Elderly players’ memory and attention improved, mental powers not directly targeted by the game—suggesting that the brain can continue to change late into life, and that properly designed games might be able to direct this change, counteracting some of the mental decline that comes with age.
“Previous work has shown that the brain is plastic,” says Dr. Joaquin Anguera, the lead author of the study, using the neuroscience term for the brain’s mutability. “Other studies have shown that games can improve cognitive function. But the most important thing we found is that videogames can have beneficial effects on other tasks if they’re properly designed.” Not only did elderly players perform better on tests of working memory and attention, but EEG imaging found that brain activity in the prefrontal cortex, an area involved with attention, began to resemble that of younger adults.
The finding, touted under the headline “Game Changer” in the latest issue of the journal Nature, is a boon to a field of research that has had to contend with a proliferation of dubious brain-training operators online, and what some say is an ingrained cultural skepticism of videogames in general. Just three years ago Nature published a study saying that brain-training software had no measureable benefit, though proponents of neuro games were quick to point out that soliciting volunteers online might not be methodologically sound. “There’s a lot of stuff out there,” Anguera says of the brain-training industry. “Some has some basis. A lot has absolutely none.” Speaking to Nature last year, Michael Merzenich, who is developing a game to ameliorate the effects of schizophrenia, was more blunt, calling the field “bullshit-ridden.” Like Merzenich, Adam Gazzaley, the director of UCSF lab that conducted the study and the co-founder of a company working on a commercial version of NeuroRacer, plans to seek FDA approval for his software.
Anguera hopes that his study will serve as a blueprint for how to design and test brain training exercises with more scientific rigor. “There’s a need for this kind of stuff. Maybe people will look at our paper and say we can make a better product.”
It shouldn’t be surprising that games could offer cognitive benefits, says Dr. Jason Allaire, who studies the psychology of videogames and aging at North Carolina State University. Doctors have long recommended crosswords, card games, Sudoku, and other analog puzzles as a way to stay mentally sharp. Much of the surprise and skepticism that greets therapeutic games comes from their outdated reputation as a slightly degenerate activity. “It’s like rock and roll in the ’50s,” says Allaire. “They got blamed for a lot of terrible things that happen in society, but we’re finding out now that games can contribute to fulfillment in people’s lives.” A study by Allaire released earlier this year found that seniors who played videogames reported higher levels of well-being those who did not.
Where videogames have an edge on Sudoku is in their ability to adjust to the skill of the player. “What’s exciting about videogames is that you can make it really adaptable,” says Allaire. “When you’re doing well, the game gets harder.” Gazzaley pointed out this aspect of games when explaining the success of NeuroRacer. Normally, games are challenging at first but then your brain goes into autopilot as you learn the rules. With NeuroRacer, when you get better, the game gets harder.
Videogames can also be tailored to train certain brain functions. We know that people have more difficulty switching their attention between different tasks as they age, so Anguera and Gazzaley designed a game that challenged exactly that activity. Their lab is working on games to help with ADHD, autism, depression, and other mental disorders. British researchers are testing a game based on cognitive behavioral therapy that’s designed to help adolescents with depression and anxiety.
Of course, one of the big strengths of therapeutic games is that they’re fun. “We want people to play it and continue to play it,” says Anguera. “We don’t want it to taste like medicine, we want it to be more palatable.”
Allaire agrees. He’s excited about the NeuroRacer findings, but thinks the game itself has room to improve. “Have you seen the game?” he asks. “If it was 1985 and we were doing DOS, it might’ve been a cool game back then.” His lab is working on a multitasking challenge that uses the level-building program on Starcraft in which players shoot different types of robots that come down different lanes. “I don’t want people to say, ‘Hey, old people, we’re going to fix your memory. I want World of Warcraft, Star Wars—I want to be a Jedi. The best kind of game is beneficial and educational without anyone knowing it.”