The specially-designed video game dramatically improved multi-tasking capability of elderly subjects

Parents fret about their youngsters becoming madly addicted to chasing villains in a virtual world. Purpose-built video games could, however, turn out to be an attractive way for an older generation to keep mentally fit.

Adam Gazzaley and his colleagues at the University of California in San Francisco have found that a group of adults above 60 years of age, who regularly played a specially-designed video game for a month, dramatically improved their multitasking capability. The group did better in that respect than 20-year-old participants playing the game for the first time and such gains persisted for six months without further training.

The ageing gamers also benefited from more sustained attention and better working memory, showing that the training had extended to cognitive skills not targeted by the game, observed the scientists in a paper just published in Nature.

Older adults were more prone to being distracted by irrelevant information and less able to engage in more than one task simultaneously, remarked Dr. Gazzaley during a telephonic press briefing. These problems were reflective of other cognitive limitations that affected their ability to deal with a complex environment.

The idea of using a purpose-built video game as a remedial measure arose in part because of a growing scientific literature that showed improved cognitive abilities in young adults who played action video games, he said.

NeuroRacer, which was developed with the help of professionals in the video game industry, requires participants to use a joystick to race a virtual car along the centre of a winding, hilly road. Meanwhile, various road signs keep popping up. If a particular type of sign flashed on the screen, the participant must immediately press a button on the game console. Other signs had to be ignored.

When 174 participants in the 20-79 age group were tested on the game, it turned out that multitasking performance dropped steadily with age.

The benefits of using the game were assessed with another group of 46 healthy adults who were 60 to 85 years of age.

Some of them were asked to play the game in the multitasking mode on a laptop at home three times a week for a month.

Another set of people were told to play the game for the same period of time but with only a single task at a time (either driving or attending to the road signs).

It was those who played the game in the multitasking mode that displayed a big and stable leap in cognitive abilities. This improvement capitalised on the brain's ability to reshape itself in response to the environment, a plasticity that exists throughout our lives, noted Dr. Gazzaley.

The work highlighted the classical medical adage, ‘use it or lose it,’ remarked Sanjeev Jain of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences in Bangalore. In older people, a stimulating environment that kept the brain active could be protective.

The research indicated that more innovative methods of training people in complex mental skills might be able to overcome or retard the decline in cognitive abilities that occurred with age, he said.

It should not be concluded that “video games are some panacea for all that ails us,” cautioned Dr. Gazzaley.

The NeuroRacer was a very carefully constructed game that targeted a known neurological problem in a certain population.

He is also co-founder of the company, Akili Interactive Labs, which is developing the next generation of the video game that could be commercialised as a diagnostic and therapeutic tool for medical professionals.

Could middle-aged adults use the game to prevent cognitive decline?

“It is reasonable to think that the game could be played earlier in life to help stave off some of the changes that we know occur with ageing,” replied Dr. Gazzaley. “It is something … we are already starting to look at in our lab.”

He and his team were examining whether NeuroRacer could be used to help other groups with cognitive control disabilities, such as children with a condition known as ‘attention deficit hyperactivity disorder’ and those suffering from depression. They were also developing four games addressing other sorts of cognitive issues, he added.