You’ve probably heard someone tell you that video games will rot your brain. But a neuroscientist at the University of California-San Francisco has helped develop a video game that actually improves brain function.
That may sound like a late-night infomercial pitch. In fact, it is the finding reported in a cover story for the prestigious scientific journal Nature. Dr. Adam Gazzaley, who is also founder and director of the university’s neuroscience research center Neuroscape, led a team in creating a game that helps healthy adults in their 60s and 70s regain the cognitive quickness of 20-year-olds. And some of those effects, after just one set of sessions playing the game, lingered for several years. NeuroRacer, as the game is called, is a 3D game in which a player races a car around a track while watching for the appearance of certain types of road signs, and it sounds simple enough that a young child could easily learn it. Yet, it taps deep into brain circuitry, providing a workout for neurons that handle attention, multitasking, and cognitive performance. Gazzaley and fellow researchers first published their efforts involving older adults in 2013. The study has continued to shine as a paradigm-shifting breakthrough in dealing with cognitive issues, the scientist told Tim Ferriss, a Silicon Valley legend who now hosts a popular podcast, in a recent interview. “Why it was so exciting was that what we were able to show was that we could improve the ability of these healthy 60-plus-year-olds, not just to play the game, but their ability to sustain their attention in a very boring context, as well as their working memory, holding information in mind for short periods of time,” Gazzaley told Ferriss. “And what we were showing is that we were really improving and their ability to multitask on the game to levels of 20-year-olds.”
The initial study included adults between the ages of 60 and 85 who used NeuroRacer at home and then completed assessments of “cognitive control” as measured with electroencephalography. Typically, individuals show linear age-related declines in cognitive control and multitasking abilities from the age of about 20 through 80, according to the research. Scientists were able to find demonstrable improvements in these qualities, as well as sustained attention and working memory, which persisted for a solid six months. In a follow-up study, currently on submission for publication, Gazzaley and his team discovered that the subjects still showed some lingering improvements six years later.
“These findings highlight the robust plasticity of the prefrontal cognitive control system in the aging brain, and provide the first evidence, to our knowledge, of how a custom-designed video game can be used to assess cognitive abilities across the lifespan, evaluate underlying neural mechanisms, and serve as a powerful tool for cognitive enhancement,” the initial study’s findings state.
The game’s success with older adults has spawned further research into other applications, such as for users with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It worked for them, too. Last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a version of NeuroRacer, called EndeavorRX, as a therapeutic treatment for children with that condition — in a regulatory first for a video game. Gazzaley co-founded a company called Akili Interactive that created EndeavorRX as an upgraded version of NeuroRacer, and had a goal of developing the game into “a product that would be a medical device that can actually serve as a new form of medicine,” the researcher told Ferriss. The “RX” video game was created to be more engaging for younger populations, with more sophisticated art, music and narrative, as well as enhanced interactivity. The basic brain-training mechanisms, however, are the same as with the original NeuroRacer, Gazzaley said. In a major research project at Duke University, which involved 350 children with ADHD in the 8-year-old to 12-year-old range, testing showed that users of the game showed marked improvement in maintaining focus in everyday tasks.
“The hypothesis was that the sustained attention of these children, which was very impaired beforehand….would improve in response to this video game compared to another group of children with ADHD that’s playing a different video game,” Gazzaley said. “And so the study took years and that hypothesis was confirmed that those children did improve. The other group, the other game, didn’t change at all.”
Along with ADHD, studies have looked into whether the game might be effective in treating autism, depression, and even multiple sclerosis. So far, there are some promising results, although there are still many mysteries to unravel as to why the game has an effect on so many different conditions. “If you look at the pathology of those conditions, it’s more confusing and elusive [as to] why they would be connected to have a common treatment lead to benefits across them,” Gazzaley said. “But from a cognitive neuroscience perspective, which is my background over the last couple of decades, is that there are common underlying neural networks in the brain that subserve different abilities, like attention, memory, decision-making, emotional regulation, on and on. And these networks could be damaged, influenced in all sorts of ways by many conditions due to different reasons.”
It is possible that perhaps for all of us some day if we’re struggling with a mental impairment, or with age-related decline, a prescription video game will be just what the doctor ordered.