Video games have long been demonized as a deterrent to brain function and development. But recent studies show that while there are still risks associated with playing video games, they may provide people with crucial cognitive and motor benefits when applied in medical contexts.
For example, a virtual reality video game that has been used to train thousands of surgeons worldwide has been found to be 230 percent more efficient than traditional methods (the technology was also one of Time’s best inventions of 2019). Video games have also played crucial roles in the social and emotional support of hospitalized children and their families.
Now, researchers are looking at how video games can be used to improve the brain functions of aging adults.
The University of California San Francisco’s Neuroscape Center has been exploring the effects of specially-designed video games on the brain functions of older adults, finding that these are able to improve cognitive functions that tend to decline with age.
They’ve since developed a portfolio of video games they say improve cognitive processes like short-term memory, attention, and long-term memory in aging adults. Adam Gazzaley, the games’ co-creator, said that these games can be brought to clinical populations as a new form of “experiential medicine.”
The team’s most recent game is a musical rhythm game that they developed with drummer Mickey Hart of the band the Grateful Dead.
In a study published earlier this month in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the researchers reported that the video game taught a group of 47 non-musicians, aged 60 to 79, how to drum and improved their ability to remember faces.
The researchers first assessed the participants’ short-term memory through a test that measured their ability to remember a face they saw just seconds before. They then gave the participants eight weeks of either musical rhythm training or word search training. Electrical activity in the brain was also recorded before and after the eight weeks.
“Results showed that only musical rhythm training improved face memory, which was associated with increased activity in the superior parietal region of the brain when encoding and maintaining faces,” wrote the researchers.
The brain’s superior parietal region is linked to attention and encoding visual information. The researchers took the results of the study to mean that rhythm training via the video game can improve the brain’s ability to focus attention on a task, encode it to memory, and recall it when it’s needed.
“This really seems to be an attentional control aspect of memory… it’s orienting your attention in such a way that it will enable you to encode it into memory and then subsequently retrieve it from memory,” Theodore Zanto, one of the researchers, told NewScientist.
Other studies have reached similar conclusions. One found that video games can improve working memory in children even years after they stop playing; another found that musical training (outside of video games) can positively impact visual working memory and attention.
Neuroscape has also demonstrated the effects of two other video games on cognitive and motor functions in older adults. One motion-capture video game improved blood pressure, balance, and attention in healthy adults, while another virtual reality video game improved long-term memory.
“All of these are taking experiences and delivering them in a very personalized, fun manner, and our brains respond through a process called plasticity,” Gazzaley told the University of California San Francisco. “Experiences are a powerful way of changing our brain, and this form of experience allows us to deliver it in a manner that’s very accessible.”
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