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Zoom. Zoom. Video Games May Help Make Old Brains Act Young Again

Study participant Ann Linsley plays a game designed to train the brain.

Hand over the console, kids. Time to give us grownups a chance at winning that video game. It's good for our brain health, really.

Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, found that a three-dimensional video game can help older people reverse age-related decline in memory and focus. The researchers found that after four weeks of training, some of the participants in their  80s beat untrained 20-year-olds and kept up their skills for six months without practice. Take that, young thumbs.

For the study, UCSF researchers first tested 30 participants - ranging in age from their 20s to their 70s - and confirmed that the older subjects didn't multitask in the game as well as the younger volunteers. No surprise there. Next, they recruited 46 study participants -ranging in age from 60 to 85 - and put them through a four-week training period with a car-racing game called NeuroRacer that lead author Adam Gazzaley, M.D., created with the help of professional game designers.

While the subjects played, the researchers recorded their brain activity and watched areas of the brain light up that are responsible for helping maintain tasks. They found that as the older players became more adept at the challenges of the game, their brain waves began to resemble those of young adults.

In the game, players steer a car along a winding, hilly road with their left hand and look for colored signs to shoot for with their right hand. Gazzaley says the game challenges the brain to focus attention, switch tasks and use working memory - all skills crucial to the real-life multitasking that helps us function better in the real world. (Not really sure whether I'm ready to share that news with my own Minecraft-obsessed 11-year-old.)

Gazzaley said he got the idea for creating the game after years of studying decline in multitasking skills as people aged. "I became inclined to see if we could do something in the lab to actually help," he told NPR. He cofounded a company last year that is developing a commercial product to be used as a diagnostic and therapeutic tool.

Although commercial companies have claimed for years that computer games can help improve brain skills and function in older people, many scientists have questioned whether improving gaming skills leads to improved skills in everyday life. There was no evidence that winning a car race in a video game improved  memory, focus or even driving ability.

Some scientists are now saying this study confirms earlier research that shows brain training can reverse some of the age-related decline that all of us want to avoid. Earl K. Miller, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was not affiliated with the research, said that this study shows "you can take older people who aren't functioning well and make them cognitively younger through this training," he told the New York Times. "It's a very big deal."

That doesn't mean, however, that you can sit on the couch playing video games with a big bowl of ice cream and expect your brain health to improve. A large body of research over many years has found that exercise, keeping your weight down, socializing with friends and, yes, challenging your brain, are all crucial to brain health, mental fitness and the ability to keep up with those grandchildren.

Photo credit:  Photos by Susan Merrell for UCSF. 


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