Previous attempts to use video games to halt, or even reverse, cognitive decline related to aging have generated mixed results. The latest attempt, led by neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley from the University of California, San Francisco, kept it simple by targeting a single cognitive skill: multitasking. In a study published Wednesday (September 4) in Nature, Gazzaley and his colleagues demonstrated that a handful of training sessions behind the wheel in a 3-D racing game could improve multitasking performance, and that such improvements lasted up to six months.
Gazzaley’s group developed the game, called NeuroRacer, to test the multitasking abilities of subjects ranging in age from 20 to 70. NeuroRacer requires players to steer a car around a winding track with a finger on their left hand while signaling the presence of randomly appearing road signs of a particular shape and color with a finger from their right. The researchers found that initial game performance declined linearly with increasing age.
After playing the game for just 12 hours over a four-week period, 60- to 85-year-old subjects improved to the point that they outperformed 20-year-old subjects who had never played it before. The observed performance improvements lasted for six months following the initial training.
Certain cognitive abilities that were not specifically targeted by the game—such as working memory and sustained attention—were also improved among the older subjects. “NeuroRacer doesn’t demand too much of those particular abilities,” Gazzaley told Nature. “So it appears that the multitasking challenge may put pressure on the entire cognitive control system, raising the level of all of its components.”
Gazzaley cautioned against over-hyping his team’s results: “Video games shouldn’t now be seen as a guaranteed panacea,” he told Nature.
Other scientists are taking a wait and see approach. “The science is still too early to know how much it can help,” Douglas Gentile, head of the Media Research Lab at Iowa State University, told The Wall Street Journal.
Emil Toescu, a neuroscientist at the University of Birmingham, agreed. “The technology is not yet sufficiently proven to recommend itself for immediate adoption by older people,” he told The Telegraph. “But, on the other hand, a moderately complex gaming experience is always good fun, whatever the age, and it cannot do damage.”