Playing videogames can help improve brain functions, study says

Playing videogames can reverse up to seven years of age-linked declines and improve brain functions, study of middle-aged subjects shows

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 03 May, 2013, 2:44am


Playing videogames can prevent and even reverse deteriorating brain functions such as memory, reasoning and visual processing, a new study says.

The University of Iowa study of hundreds of people aged 50 and older found that those who played a videogame were able to improve a range of cognitive skills, and reverse up to seven years of age-related declines.

"We know that we can stop this decline and actually restore cognitive processing speed to people," said Fredric Wolinsky, a professor of public health and lead author of the paper published in the journal PLOS One.

The study, released on Wednesday, is the latest in a series of research projects examining why people, as they age, lose "executive function" of the brain, which is needed for memory, attention, perception and problem solving.

Wolinsky and colleagues separated 681 generally healthy patients in Iowa into four groups. Each of those was split into segments with people aged 50 to 64 and those over 65. A group was given computerised crossword puzzles, while three other groups were asked to play a videogame called Road Tour, which revolves around identifying a type of vehicle displayed fleetingly on a license plate.

Participants were asked to re-identify the vehicle type and match it with a road sign displayed from a circular array of possibilities. The player must succeed at least three out of every four tries to advance to the next level, which speeds up the vehicle identification and adds more distractions.

"The game starts off with an assessment to determine your current speed of processing. Whatever it is, the training can help you get about 70 per cent faster," Wolinsky said.

The groups that played the game at least 10 hours, either at home or in a lab at the university, gained at least three years of cognitive improvement when tested after a year.

A group that got four additional hours of training with the game did even better, improving their cognitive abilities by four years, the study shows.

The key seemed to lie in improving the brain's processing speed, which can also widen one's field of view.

"As we get older, our visual field collapses on us," Wolinsky explained. "We get tunnel vision. It's a normal functioning of ageing. This helps to explain why most accidents happen at intersections because older folks are looking straight ahead and are less aware of peripherals."

The researchers found those who played Road Tour scored far better than the crossword puzzle group in functions such as concentration, nimbleness with shifting from one mental task to another and the speed at which new information is processed.

The improvement ranged from 1.5 years to nearly seven years in cognitive improvement.

"Age-related cognitive decline is real, it's happening and it starts earlier and then continues steadily. The good news is we can do something about it," Wolinsky said.