Video games, generally accused of being a vice, a mindless way to waste time, may actually confer cognitive benefits for the elderly suggests a novel study.

According to experts, people who play carefully designed games that meet specific standards in their golden years can strengthen their brain power and ward off mental decline.

A long-term, well-controlled study, revealed that exposure to a customized high-speed video game called NeuroRacer helped senior participants improve their ability to weed out distraction and stay focused on task.

Co-creator of the game, Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist and director of the Neuroscience Imaging Center at the University of California-San Francisco explained that NeuroRacer was tailored to keep in shape cognitive functions that decline with age, such as short-term memory, attention, and the capacity to tackle distractions.

“Our cognitive testing showed a very nice and selective increase in working memory performance and sustained attention, neither of which were specifically challenged by the game,” Gazzaley said.

Details of lab experiments
In an attempt to establish whether NeuroRacer could be an effective weapon against age-related decline in the human brain, the researchers conducted a study. The experiments in the Gazzaley Lab involved 174 subjects in the age bracket from 20-85-years.

Participants played NeuroRacer that involved driving a car on a narrow, windy road with distracting signs popping up. At the onset of the study, experts found older people’s performance on the driving game was worse than that of the younger lot.

However, 16 subjects who played the multitasking game an hour a day around three times a week exhibited a significant improvement in scores after just 12 sessions in training. In fact they not only outperformed their peers, they also did better than the control group made up of 20-year-olds who did not engage in training.

The cognitive benefits persisted for at least 6 months, even after the older subjects had ceased playing NeuroRacer. Additionally, the participants’ working memory and attention span also improved.

Gazzaley stated, “We were able to show that activity within the prefrontal cortex, a brain region which has previously been associated with cognitive control abilities and decision making, increased selectively in our multitasking training group. And those who showed the biggest boost in this brain region also showed the most improvement in sustained attention tasks outside of the game.”

Findings of the study are released in the journal Nature this week.

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