Training the older brain in 3-D: Video game enhances cognitive control

September 4, 2013
Participant playing NeuroRacer at home. Credit: The Gazzaley Lab

Scientists at UC San Francisco are reporting that they have found a way to reverse some of the negative effects of aging on the brain, using a video game designed to improve cognitive control.

The findings, published this week in Nature, show how a specially designed 3-D video game can improve cognitive performance in healthy older adults. The researchers said it provides a measure of scientific support to the burgeoning field of , which has been criticized for lacking evidence that such training can induce lasting and meaningful changes.

In the game, which was developed by the UCSF researchers, participants race a car around a winding track while a variety of road signs pop up. Drivers are instructed to keep an eye out for a specific type of sign, while ignoring all the rest, and to press a button whenever that particular sign appears. The need to switch rapidly from driving to responding to the signs – i.e. multitasking – generates interference in the brain that undermines performance. The researchers found that this interference increases dramatically across the adult lifespan.

But after receiving just 12 hours of training on the game, spread over a month, the 60- to 85-year-old study participants improved their performance until it surpassed that of 20-somethings who played the game for the first time.

The training also improved the participants' performance in two other important cognitive areas: and sustained attention. And participants maintained their skills at the video games six months after the training had ended.

"The finding is a powerful example of how plastic the older brain is," said Adam Gazzaley, MD, PhD, UCSF associate professor of neurology, physiology and psychiatry and director of the Neuroscience Imaging Center. Gazzaley co-founded the company, Akili Interactive Labs, which is developing the next generation of the video game.

Gazzaley, who has made a career out of studying how affects , said his game, NeuroRacer, does more than any ordinary game – be it bridge, a crossword puzzle, or an off-the-shelf video game – to condition the brain. Like a good teacher, he said, NeuroRacer undermines people's natural tendency to go on automatic pilot once they've mastered a skill, and pushes them further than they think they can go.

"Normally, when you get better at something, it gets easier," he said. But with this game, "when you get better, it gets harder."

The video will load shortly
Credit: Nature

Evidence that the adult brain is capable of learning has been accumulating for more than a dozen years. A study of London taxi drivers, for example, found that their brains had changed as they learned to navigate the city's notoriously complicated streets. Nevertheless, Gazzaley said the brain's function often erodes steadily over time in many areas, with some exceptions, like wisdom.

Given this, Gazzaley said it's encouraging that even a small amount of brain training can reverse some of the age-related decline.

Gazzaley's group found evidence of a possible brain mechanism that may explain the improvements he saw in his older subjects, and why these gains transferred to other cognitive areas. Electroencephalograph (EEG) recordings point to changes in a neural network involved in , which is necessary to pursue goals.

The scientists measured midline frontal theta – or low frequency oscillations – in the prefrontal cortex, as well as the coherence in these waves between frontal and posterior regions of the brain. As the older "drivers" became more adept at the multitasking challenges of NeuroRacer, their brains modulated this key neural network and its activity began to resemble that of young adults.

Both of these measures –midline frontal theta and theta coherence – are well established neural markers of cognitive control that have been associated with many of the processes that enable people to pursue their goals.

"We see this as evidence that the training may have improved our ' ability to stay in an engaged, active state for a longer period of time," said Joaquin A. Anguera, the paper's first author and a post-doc in Gazzaley's lab.

Indeed, the researchers found that the training-induced changes in this neural network predicted how well participants would do on a different test, called the Test of Variables of Attention (TOVA), which measures sustained attention.

"The amount that midline frontal theta went up was related to something that was untrained, this other measure, the TOVA," Anguera said. "It implies there's something that changed that was common to the training and to the task we tested afterwards."

Gazzaley said these findings point toward a common neural basis of cognitive control that is enhanced by the challenging and high-interference conditions of the video game, and this might explain how racing a car in 3-D could improve something as seemingly unrelated as memory.

If the finding holds, it could have wide application. Other brain disorders like ADHD, depression and dementia are also associated with deficits in cognitive control.

"Follow up studies using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging and transcranial electrical stimulation are still needed to better understand exactly how this network is involved in the performance changes," Gazzaley said.

Other authors of the article, "Video game training enhances cognitive control in ," include Jacqueline Boccanfuso, Jean Rintoul, Omar Al-Hashimi, Farshid Faraji, Jacki Janowich, Erwin Kong, Yudy Larraburo, Cammie Rolle and Eric Johnston.

Gazzaley is co-founder and chief science advisor of Akili Interactive Labs, which is developing cognitive software as diagnostic and therapeutic tools, and has a patent pending on a game-based cognitive intervention he developed from the research presented in the paper.

Explore further: Neuroscientists find it's never too late to retrain brain

Related Stories

Neuroscientists find it's never too late to retrain brain

November 2, 2012
(Medical Xpress)—UCSF neuroscientists have found that by training on attention tests, people young and old can improve brain performance and multitasking skills.

Placebo effect largely ignored in psychological intervention studies

July 9, 2013
Many brain-training companies tout the scientific backing of their products – the laboratory studies that reveal how their programs improve your brainpower. But according to a new report, most intervention studies like ...

Video game 'exercise' for an hour a day may enhance certain cognitive skills

March 13, 2013
Playing video games for an hour each day can improve subsequent performance on cognitive tasks that use similar mental processes to those involved in the game, according to research published March 13 in the open access journal ...

Brain training computer game improves some cognitive functions relatively quickly

January 11, 2012
The brain training computer game "Brain Age" can improve executive functions and processing speed, even with a relatively short training period, but does not affect global cognitive status or attention, according to a study ...

Memory improves for older adults using computerized brain-fitness program

June 25, 2013
UCLA researchers have found that older adults who regularly used a brain-fitness program on a computer demonstrated significantly improved memory and language skills.

Playing video games can boost brain power, another study says

August 21, 2013
Certain types of video games can help to train the brain to become more agile and improve strategic thinking, according to scientists from Queen Mary University of London and University College London (UCL).

Recommended for you

Cognitive cross-training enhances learning, study finds

July 25, 2017
Just as athletes cross-train to improve physical skills, those wanting to enhance cognitive skills can benefit from multiple ways of exercising the brain, according to a comprehensive new study from University of Illinois ...

Brain disease seen in most football players in large report

July 25, 2017
Research on 202 former football players found evidence of a brain disease linked to repeated head blows in nearly all of them, from athletes in the National Football League, college and even high school.

Zebrafish study reveals clues to healing spinal cord injuries

July 25, 2017
Fresh insights into how zebrafish repair their nerve connections could hold clues to new therapies for people with spinal cord injuries.

Lutein may counter cognitive aging, study finds

July 25, 2017
Spinach and kale are favorites of those looking to stay physically fit, but they also could keep consumers cognitively fit, according to a new study from University of Illinois researchers.

Brain stimulation may improve cognitive performance in people with schizophrenia

July 24, 2017
Brain stimulation could be used to treat cognitive deficits frequently associated with schizophrenia, according to a new study from King's College London.

New map may lead to drug development for complex brain disorders, researcher says

July 24, 2017
Just as parents are not the root of all their children's problems, a single gene mutation can't be blamed for complex brain disorders like autism, according to a Keck School of Medicine of USC neuroscientist.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.