Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Icon

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.

Sur­pris­es

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.

Chal­lenges

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.

Relat­ed Arti­cles:

Leave a Reply...

Loading Facebook Comments ...

Leave a Reply

Categories: Cognitive Neuroscience, Health & Wellness, Technology

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

All Slidedecks & Recordings Available — click image below

Search for anything brain-related in our article archives

About SharpBrains

As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters, and more, SharpBrains is an independent market research firm and think tank tracking health and performance applications of brain science.