A multitasking 3D video game that helped some older adults show neurological activity similar to much younger adults could lead researchers to a better understanding of the plasticity of the older brain.
Researchers from the University of California San Francisco recently tested a 3D-driving game on a group of adults. During the game, players used a joystick to drive a car through a winding road and were asked to push a button when specific signs popped up. They received points for hitting the button for the correct sign, and it counted against them if they hit a button at the wrong time.
The directions were meant to elicit a multitasking response, which generates a certain interference in the brain that other studies have found increases with age.
What the researchers found was that the older adult brain was receptive to the 12 hours of video game training participants engaged in over the course of a month. During that time, the 60- to 85-year-old players were able to improve their gaming performance, in some cases surpassing 20-somethings’ initial attempts.
What’s more, when they were asked to play again six months later, many of the participants had retained their skills, showing improvements with working memory and sustained attention — two more areas that other research has shown can decrease in older brains.
Old Dogs, New Tricks
One of the study’s most important findings is that older adults do have a level of plasticity in the brain, said Molly Wagster, Ph.D., chief of the National Institute on Aging’s Behavioral & Systems Neuroscience Branch.
The notion that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks is a persistent one in today’s society, she said, but this is one of many studies that have shown that’s not necessarily the case.
“This study is small, but nonetheless, is has shown us that the older brain is capable of changing, compensating and adapting,” Wagster told TechNewsWorld. “It is also a very good demonstration that there are ways to harness that capability.”
That information could help researchers learn more about the kind of training that would help older adults manage sustained attention tasks or hold bits of information in their memory — such as where they parked their car, for instance.
“Most notably, it highlights the ability of an older adult to benefit from cognitive training in ways that extend beyond just better performance on the cognitive training task itself,” said Molly E. Zimmerman, Ph.D., assistant professor in Albert Einstein College of Medicine’s Department of Neurology.
“That is, training on one task helped older adults perform better on other tasks, and this benefit persisted even after a prolonged period of time,” she told TechNewsWorld.
The study could also be useful in uncovering new ways to train the brains of older adults to better meet some of the everyday struggles that challenge them, said Zimmerman.
“The use of a multitasking driving video game to provide cognitive training is exciting, because it allows the older adult to gain the skills that support a real-world activity in the relative safety of the home environment,” she noted.
It’s well known that regular exercise, a healthy diet, positive social interactions and mental stimulation have a beneficial effect on the aging process, said Wagster, but studies like this one show that there is more to be learned.
“The video game approach allowed researchers to build a task that is constantly changing and really gets to these complex stimuli that challenge an individual in an interesting and interactive format,” she pointed out.
“In that way, the study could be looked at as an opportunity to help present cognitive training in an interesting, stimulating and robust way that you might not get with other lifestyle changes.”