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Racy video game makes older adults better multitaskers

Participant playing NeuroRacer at home. 
                Credit: The Gazzaley Lab/University of California, San Francisco
Participant playing NeuroRacer at home. Credit: The Gazzaley Lab/University of California, San Francisco

A specially designed video game revved up the brains of middle-aged and elderly volunteers, researchers reported on Wednesday.

People who played the game became faster and better at multitasking than 20-somethings who hadn’t played it, the researchers report in the journal Nature. The benefits translated to other tasks and lasted for as long as six months, they said.

The findings don’t mean people can play a video game and then safely text and drive, and they don’t even necessarily translate to real life - yet. But Adam Gazzaley of the University of California San Francisco , who led the study, says it’s the first to show that gaining video game skills can improve something other than playing video games.

“We know that through challenging your brain you can drive plasticity and improve its function,” Gazzaley told reporters on a telephone briefing. “We would hope that this type of training would have real-life transfer.”

Gazzaley got some friends in the video game industry to help him design a special game for the project. Called “NeuroRacer”, it forces players to keep an animated car on a changing, curving, animated road. At the same time, images of colored geometric shapes pop up and players are supposed to click only on certain ones.

The game adjusts to the player and is deliberately designed to push the brain’s multitasking abilities. “It is really important to note that this was a targeted approach to known deficits,” Gazzaley said.

Gazzaley’s team had already shown that adults’ ability to multitask falls off gradually with every year they get older. “Older adults are particularly sensitive to the negative impacts of interference,” he said.

They tested a batch of people aged 60 to 85, first checking their abilities to multitask using standard tests. Sure enough, the older they were the worse their skills.

The seniors were given a laptop computer loaded with the game to take home and play for a month. None had been video gamers before, but Gazzaley says they enjoyed the game.

Participant playing NeuroRacer. 
                Credit: The Gazzaley Lab/University of California, San Francisco
Participant playing NeuroRacer at home. Credit: The Gazzaley Lab/University of California, San Francisco

After, the volunteers again took a battery of standard tests of reaction time and cognitive function. They had improved, Gazzaley’s team reported.

Before training on the game, the volunteers lost on average 65 percent of their performance function when a second task was added to a first one. After a month of playing Neuroracer, this loss fell to just 16 percent. The older adults were better able to multi-task than other volunteers in their 20s, who hadn’t trained, Gazzaley said.

Some of the volunteers also wore electroencephalographs – devices that provide a very rough measure of brain activity. After they trained on the game, there was more EEG activity in the part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, which goes to work when people are multi-tasking and making decisions.

The researchers have not shown that this can translate to real life, but Gazzaley hopes it can. “I do like the idea of developing interventions to keep health older adults at the top of their game,” he said.

His team is also looking at how it might help other people – children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), for example.

“The technology is not yet sufficiently proven to recommend itself for immediate adoption by older people, but, on the other hand, a moderately complex gaming experience is always good fun, whatever the age, and it cannot do damage. At best, it can improve,” said Dr. Emil Toescu, a neurologist at Britain’s University of Birmingham who was not involved in the study.