Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


Games for Brain Health — Novelty, Variety and Challenge

Land­mark study just pub­lished: Basak C, et al “Can train­ing in a real-time strat­e­gy video game atten­u­ate cog­ni­tive decline in old­er adults?” Psy­chol Aging 2008; DOI: 10.1037/a0013494.

Play­ing com­put­er games improves brain pow­er of old­er adults, claim sci­en­tists (Tele­graph)

- The team at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois recruit­ed 40 adults over 60 years old, half of whom were asked to play a com­put­er game called Rise of Nations, a role-play­ing game in which you have to build your own empire.

- Game play­ers have to build cities, feed and employ their peo­ple, main­tain an ade­quate mil­i­tary and expand their ter­ri­to­ry.

- Both groups were assessed before, dur­ing and after the video game train­ing on a vari­ety of tests.

- As a group, the “gamers” became sig­nif­i­cant­ly bet­ter – and faster – at switch­ing between tasks as com­pared to the com­par­i­son group. Their work­ing mem­o­ry, as reflect­ed in the tests, was also sig­nif­i­cant­ly improved and their rea­son­ing abil­i­ty was enhanced.

- (Pro­fes­sor Art Kramer, an author of the study pub­lished in the jour­nal Psy­chol­o­gy & Aging) “This is one mode in which old­er peo­ple can stay men­tal­ly fit, cog­ni­tive­ly fit. I’m not sug­gest­ing, how­ev­er, that it’s the only thing they should do.”

Pro­fes­sor Kramer and I dis­cussed this study last June dur­ing our con­ver­sa­tion on Why We Need Walk­ing Book Clubs:

Ques­tion (me): Tell us more about your work with cog­ni­tive train­ing for old­er adults.

Answer (Prof Kramer): We have now a study in press where we eval­u­ate the effect of a com­mer­cial­ly avail­able strat­e­gy videogame on old­er adults’ cog­ni­tion.

Let me first give some con­text. It seems clear that, as we age, our so-called crys­tal­lized abil­i­ties remain pret­ty sta­ble, where­as the so-called flu­id abil­i­ties decline. One par­tic­u­lar set of flu­id abil­i­ties are called exec­u­tive func­tions, which deal with exec­u­tive con­trol, plan­ning, deal­ing with ambi­gu­i­ty, pri­or­i­tiz­ing, mul­ti-task­ing. These skills are cru­cial to main­tain inde­pen­dent liv­ing.

In this study, we exam­ined whether play­ing strat­e­gy-based video game can train those exec­u­tive func­tions and improve them. We showed that play­ing a strat­e­gy-based videogame (Rise of Nations Gold Edi­tion) can result in not only becom­ing a bet­ter videogame play­er but it trans­ferred to untrained exec­u­tive func­tions. We saw a sig­nif­i­cant improve­ment in task switch­ing, work­ing mem­o­ry, visu­al short-term mem­o­ry, and men­tal rota­tion. And some, but more lim­it­ed, ben­e­fits in inhi­bi­tion and rea­son­ing.

I can share a few details on the study: the aver­age age was 69 years, and the exper­i­ment required around 23 hours of train­ing time. We only includ­ed indi­vid­u­als who had played videogames 0 hours/ week for the last 2 years.

That last cri­te­ria is inter­est­ing. We typ­i­cal­ly say that good “brain exer­cise” requires nov­el­ty, vari­ety and chal­lenge. So, if you take adults who are 69-years-old and haven’t played a videogame in 2 years, how do you know if the ben­e­fit comes from the par­tic­u­lar videogame they played vs. just the val­ue of deal­ing with a new and com­plex task?

That’s a great ques­tion. The real­i­ty is that we don’t know, since we had a “wait­ing list” con­trol group. In the future per­haps we should com­pare dif­fer­ent videogames or oth­er men­tal­ly stim­u­lat­ing activ­i­ties against each oth­er and see what method is the most effi­cient. Per­haps the Nation­al Insti­tutes on Health may be inter­est­ed in fund­ing such research.

In any case, your study rein­forces an impor­tant point: old­er brains can, and do, learn new skills.

Yes. The rate of learn­ing by old­er adults may be slow­er, and they may ben­e­fit from more explic­it instruc­tion and tech­nol­o­gy train­ing, but, as a soci­ety, it is a mas­sive waste of tal­ent not to ensure old­er adults remain active and pro­duc­tive.

Full inter­view: Arthur Kramer on Why We Need Walk­ing Book Clubs

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