Researchers at the University of Iowa have been studying ways to reverse the effects of aging on mental agility.
Their answer? Play a video game!
Not just any game, mind you. They developed a game of their own, a simple visual puzzle game called "Road Tour." Their research shows that playing the game can markedly improve processing speed, mental agility and peripheral vision.
“A physician could write a prescription and say ‘take this [game] home and play,’” Fredric Wolinsky, a professor at the University of Iowa's College of Public Health, told TechNewsDaily.
"Road Tour" works by showing an image of either a car or a truck. Around the vehicle plate are eight signs — seven say "Rabbit Crossing" and one says "Route 66." The signs and the vehicle quickly disappear, and players have to identify what kind of vehicle they saw and where the Route 66 sign was.
As you play, the images stay on screen for shorter and shorter periods of time, and the signs get further and further away from the car, making the game progressively more difficult. [See also: 5 Hit Games Made on a Shoestring ]
That might not sound like much fun, but research shows that it works. The study, which included groups of people between the ages of 50 and 64 and those 65 years and older, found an increase in mental agility comparable to reversing years of aging. Those results came after playing the game for just ten hours. The researchers arrived at these conclusions by testing participants' mental faculties before and after the study, and plugging their scores into a formula created by the researchers to assess cognitive ability.
“There are a variety of games or training programs or what have you on the market these days. Some of them make very, very strong claims and don’t have a lot of evidence behind them," says Wolinsky. "Our [University of] Iowa study has the most evidence behind it that it works.”
The game takes advantage of the human brain's 'plasticity,' or its ability to literally reshape itself as it learns or forgets various behaviors.
"As we age our cognition generally declines. We slow down," said Wolinsky. "So what we're trying to do is use the positive side of brain plasticity to regain the cognitive processing speed that [older people] had before, and maybe even make it better than before." It's the neural version of 'use it or lose it.'
This study has been in the works since the 1990s, when the National Institutes of Heath commissioned several studies on cognitive function in older adults. Wolinsky's proposal was accepted, and in 1995 he and his fellow researchers developed an MS DOS version — "A clunker to be sure," Wolinsky said — of what would become "Road Tour."
In 2008, a company that specializes in brain exercise software called Posit Science expressed interest in the old study. Posit Science created an updated version of "Road Tour" which is commercially available from the company's website. It was this version of the old game that the University of Iowa researchers used in their study.
There’s no shortage of research on what video games do to our brains. Does playing games make us dumber? Smarter? Does it improve hand-eye coordination? Rot our brains?
But this study is unique in that it didn't start out by seeking to answer questions about videogames themselves. Rather, the researchers were looking for ways to improve cognitive processes in older adults, and arrived at a video game.