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Gaming and Neuroscience: Opportunities and Challenges

A cou­ple weeks ago I attended the Enter­tain­ment Soft­ware and Cog­ni­tive Neu­rother­a­peu­tics Con­fer­ence, ESCoNS, at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia San Fran­cisco. The speak­ers’ talks were insight­ful, sur­pris­ing, and inspir­ing in many regards. The pur­pose of this meet­ing was to bring together great minds in a vari­ety of fields from neu­ro­science to game design and to come up with some ideas how to make game based cog­ni­tive train­ing a real­ity as an effec­tive ther­apy for many of today’s most chal­leng­ing dis­or­ders and deficits. Many of the sci­en­tists also thought that game based ther­a­pies for cog­ni­tive deficits could be used as enhance­ment tools for healthy indi­vid­u­als as well.

I found the pre­sen­ta­tions to be inspir­ing not only because of what the sci­en­tists have learned about neu­ro­plas­tic­ity, but also because they revealed the gap­ing holes that remain in our under­stand­ings of these neural sys­tems. For exam­ple, we know that stim­u­la­tion of the vagus nerve can effec­tively work as a lever, allow­ing more or less plas­tic­ity depend­ing on how much it is stim­u­lated, but at the same time we under­stand very lit­tle when it comes to the specifics of cre­at­ing effec­tive train­ing mod­ules or the changes in the brain that occur as a result of training.

Notable Speak­ers

Here’s a few of the peo­ple who I thought had the most inter­est­ing things to say, and a brief sum­mary of what they discussed.

Michael Kil­gard from the Uni­ver­sity of Texas dis­cussed the basic mech­a­nisms of neu­ro­plas­tic­ity. Specif­i­cally, he focused on how acetyle­choline pro­duc­tion via vagus nerve stim­u­la­tion has large effects on neu­ro­plas­tic­ity, and when paired with appro­pri­ate stim­uli can serve to increase plas­tic­ity in the motor cor­tex, audi­tory cor­tex and can be included in ther­a­pies that apply to chronic pain, skilled move­ment prob­lems and audi­tory problems.

Michael Merzenich is an emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia San Fran­cisco and dis­cussed the lim­its to train­ing induced neu­ro­plas­tic­ity and his own research demon­strat­ing fas­ci­nat­ing feats of plas­tic­ity. Specif­i­cally, how he trained old mice using audi­tory stim­uli and brought their brains back to “younger” states, with improve­ments across the board in terms of myeli­na­tion, BDNF expres­sion, cor­ti­cal thick­ness, and many other neu­ro­log­i­cal mea­sure­ments of brain health.

Jim Blas­covich from the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia Santa Bar­bara dis­cussed the phys­i­o­log­i­cal basis of arousal and task engage­ment. He posits that chal­lenges and threats are per­ceived by the ner­vous sys­tem very dif­fer­ently, and that task engage­ment lies in reduc­ing the threat pre­sented by a task while induc­ing chal­lenge responses. He dis­cussed these top­ics from a largely med­ical per­spec­tive, under­stand­ing how peo­ple respond to chemother­apy and other dif­fi­cult treat­ments, but I think that many of the neu­ro­sci­en­tists under­stood the more basic impli­ca­tions of his work. Pro­fes­sor Blas­covich is sys­tem­at­i­cally tack­ling the part of moti­va­tion most pur­sued by game devel­op­ers and most elu­sive to the cog­ni­tive neu­ro­sci­en­tists that have been involved in cre­at­ing train­ing games: keep­ing the user com­pletely engrossed and engaged in the experience.

Panel Dis­cus­sions

There were also two panel dis­cus­sions, which I thought were invalu­able for hear­ing many opin­ions and get­ting a gen­eral sense of the cur­rent state and direc­tions of cog­ni­tive train­ing. Here are some of the most impor­tant insights revealed:

Cog­ni­tive train­ing games need to make peo­ple feel com­pe­tent and chal­lenged. This will keep them sen­si­tive to improve­ment and keep them from get­ting bored.

If the gam­ing ele­ments become the cen­tral focus of a treat­ment, then peo­ple for­get that what they are doing is good for them and they quickly lose interest.

When apply­ing for grants, it’s crit­i­cal that the gam­ing team and neu­ro­science team are equally tal­ented; most appli­ca­tions for fund­ing are heav­ily weighted to one side or the other.

It’s dif­fi­cult to tweak large block­buster games for train­ing pur­poses because nor­mally the games are so com­plex that mak­ing a few changes could have unknown ram­i­fi­ca­tions through­out the rest of the game.

Any cog­ni­tive train­ing that is adver­tised as hav­ing ther­a­peu­tic ben­e­fit must go through FDA approval; at the moment there are no cog­ni­tive train­ing pro­grams with FDA approval.


I was sur­prised at how quickly the edu­ca­tion sys­tem has adopted cog­ni­tive train­ing, to their credit. The US Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion has made a bet on cog­ni­tive train­ing that I’m sure will pay off many times over in ben­e­fits to the edu­ca­tion sys­tem in the years to come. I was also sur­prised by Torkel Klingberg’s argu­ment that work­ing mem­ory and atten­tion are largely oper­ated by the same neural sys­tem, which is inter­est­ing and deserves fur­ther investigation.


Per­haps the largest hur­dle I saw for the devel­op­ment of the field was the lack of com­mu­ni­ca­tion between neu­ro­sci­en­tists and the gam­ing com­mu­nity. From what I heard at the con­fer­ence, it seems that neu­ro­sci­en­tists have had a dif­fi­cult time try­ing to get gam­ing com­pa­nies to coop­er­ate with them, but that may change now, see­ing as this con­fer­ence was cre­ated by a team of devel­op­ers and neu­ro­sci­en­tists to address that exact pur­pose. Unfor­tu­nately, many of the neu­ro­sci­en­tists who pre­sented seemed to miss this point. They mostly spoke strictly of neu­ro­science rather than explor­ing how their research or knowl­edge could be used to inform the inter­sec­tion of gam­ing and neuroscience.

– Aki Niko­laidis has a pas­sion for under­stand­ing how brains are able to change and is fas­ci­nated by the pos­si­bil­i­ties for cog­ni­tive enhance­ment offered by cog­ni­tive train­ing. He’s cur­rently pur­su­ing a PhD in neu­ro­science at the Uni­ver­sity of Illi­nois Cham­paign Urbana, and his research focuses on using neu­roimag­ing meth­ods like fMRI to find how cog­ni­tive train­ing changes the brain. He recently wrote an arti­cle (here) on the future of cog­ni­tive train­ing, and made a YouTube chan­nel ded­i­cated to dis­cussing top­ics in the brain sci­ences, with videos such as this, this and this.

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