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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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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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