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NIH Research Matters

September 16, 2013

Video Game Training Improves Cognitive Control in Older Adults

Researchers found that seniors who play a 3-D video game improve their ability to sustain focus and multitask successfully. The results highlight the potential of the aging brain to improve certain skills.

A study participant playing a video game designed to enhance cognitive control. Image courtesy of UCSF.

As we age, changes in our brain can affect our cognitive abilities and memory. One function that may be altered is multitasking—the ability to simultaneously accomplish multiple goals. Multitasking behavior is becoming more common because of new technologies and demands. For example, you may type an email or text message while talking on the phone. When driving a car, you simultaneously perform numerous tasks, such as scanning the road, steering, and using the brakes.

A team led by Drs. Joaquin A. Anguera and Adam Gazzaley from the University of California, San Francisco, examined the ability of seniors to multitask and improve their cognitive control—the ability to interact with a complex environment to accomplish a goal. The study, funded in part by NIH’s National Institute on Aging (NIA), appeared on September 5, 2013, in Nature.

The researchers first assessed multitasking ability in 174 participants ranging in age from 20 to 79 years. Using a custom-designed 3-D driving game, they found that multitasking performance dropped linearly with increasing age.

To test whether older adults could improve multitasking ability, the researchers randomly assigned 46 healthy adults, ages 60 to 85, to 1 of 3 groups: multitask training using the 3-D videogame, single-task training using a similar videogame, or no videogame training. During multitask training, participants used a joystick to maintain a moving car in the center of a winding road while also responding to road signs that popped up. As participants improved, the games got harder.

Seniors who played the multitasking game on a laptop at home for 1 hour a day, 3 times a week for 4 weeks (12 hours of total training) significantly improved their multitasking performance index at the end of the training period. The levels they achieved were superior to the levels achieved by a group of untrained 20-year-olds. When the seniors who completed the multitask training were tested 6 months later, the gains were still present.

The researchers found that the multitask training resulted in general improvements to cognitive abilities that are known to decline with age, particularly working memory and sustained attention. Using electroencephalography (EEG) to assess the neural basis of the cognitive changes, they found changes in the prefrontal cortex area of the brain, a region involved in cognitive control.

“The finding is a powerful example of how plastic the older brain is,” Gazzaley says, referring to the brain’s ability to adapt and change. Followup studies will be needed to better understand the neural basis for these performance changes.

Gazzaley has a patent pending for a game-based cognitive training intervention inspired by this research.

—by Carol Torgan, Ph.D.

Related Links:

Reference: Video game training enhances cognitive control in older adults. Nature. 2013 Sep 5;501(7465):97-101. doi: 10.1038/nature12486. PMID: 24005416.

Funding: NIH’s National Institute on Aging (NIA); Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; UCSF Institutional Research and Career Development Award.

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Editor: Harrison Wein, Ph.D.
Assistant Editors: Vicki Contie, Carol Torgan, Ph.D.

NIH Research Matters is a weekly update of NIH research highlights from the Office of Communications and Public Liaison, Office of the Director, National Institutes of Health.

This page last reviewed on March 31, 2014

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