People will try just about anything to keep their memories sharp and their minds youthful — exercise, a special diet, vitamins, crossword puzzles. Now, a new study suggests that regularly playing a video game that forces people to multitask can improve basic cognitive functions — such as their abilities to hold a thought in mind or pay attention.
It’s no surprise that multitasking abilities decline steadily with age, but in the study published in the journal Nature Wednesday, older adults regained that ability after they trained on a driving computer game during which they had to periodically respond to a sign. The researchers also detected subtle shifts in the ways participants’ brains responded to the game at the end of the training, which researchers believe may underlie the improvements.
“All these things are capitalizing on the fact that our brain’s plasticity to reshape itself structurally, functionally, and chemically doesn’t end when we go through a critical stage of development, but it exists through our lives,’’ said Dr. Adam Gazzaley, director of the Neuroscience Imaging Center at the University of California, San Francisco, who led the work. “We know that through challenging your brain, you can drive plasticity and improve its function.’’
The game, NeuroRacer, is a simple driving task requiring participants to keep their car climbing a winding mountain road that gets progressively more difficult. When a sign pops up on the screen, players respond by pressing a button as rapidly as they can — but only if the sign had a green circle on it.
The researchers initially calculated the “cost’’ of multitasking by measuring the decline in performance that occurred when the players, aged 60 to 85, had to both drive and respond to signs. Having to do both simultaneously resulted in a 64 percent cost, on average, to their performance. But after people played the game for 12 hours over a month-long period, they improved markedly, experiencing less of a drop in performance when juggling the two tasks than 20 year olds who played the game once.
The key, however, was that the benefit went beyond the multitasking skill they were trained on in the game. Older adults’ performance also improved on tasks that tested their abilities to sustain attention and to recognize a face after a delay. The improvements lasted six months.
Gazzaley is a co-founder of a Boston-based company, Akili Interactive Labs, that is already working to adapt the basic principles of the research to a more sophisticated mobile game, called “Project Evo.’’ That game is entering pilot clinical trials for disorders in which some of the same cognitive abilities are affected, including depression, attention deficit disorder, and some forms of autism. The company does not have a launch date for the game, and is not currently working on a version for healthy adults.
Brain training games have become a booming industry, with companies promoting interventions such as puzzles or classes that maintain the brain, most with varying levels of evidence to support their ability to slow the loss of acuity.
Dr. Kirk Daffner, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said that everyone experiences a decline in the ability to multitask as they age. That pops up in daily life in simple ways — imagine trying to remember a phone number, then being interrupted by someone asking you a question. The ability to recall the number declines with age.
What is important about the study, Daffner said, is that getting better at the game had effects that went beyond the task adults were training themselves on.
But the most important question — whether the improvements measured through neuropsychological testing would result in lasting, tangible differences in people’s ability to function, remember, focus their attention on a project, or drive, can’t be answered by the current study.
“This is very encouraging to people who are deciding whether it’s just as good to rest all day in one’s chair or be out there, interacting with other human beings and trying to puzzle through things,’’ Daffner said. “What we can’t say is whether this particular game is better than someone who is playing a high-level bridge game, where the stakes change and you have to keep things in mind, or people are reading in an active way, or doing complicated knitting. … There’s no data yet to say that this is necessarily better than things you don’t have to buy.’’
Dr. Gary W. Small, director of the Longevity Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has previously worked on brain-training games, said the study’s findings are supported by other work that has found training adults’ working memory can increase their fluid intelligence, such as problem-solving abilities.
The questions that remain, though, are some of the same ones that people ask about a new drug.
“Let’s look at how effective this is in normal aging. What is the age group where it really has its greatest effect? What about in these various clinical conditions — is it better? How does this affect everyday memory ability, practical memory,’’ Small said. “This is a business that’s building quite rapidly; it’s going to be in the billions of dollars in the future.’’