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Study: Brain-training games may help cognition in the elderly

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Video games designed specifically to test brain function may help elderly people regain cognition and memory abilities, according to a study being published in this week's issue of the journal Nature reported by The Guardian.

A group of researchers at the University of California, San Francisco found that — as expected — a person's ability to multitask gradually declines as he or she ages. The participants in the study, adults between 60 and 85 years old, were able to improve their ability to multitask by playing a special racing game called NeuroRacer. One mode of the game tasks players with pressing a button when a symbol pops up on the screen while they're driving a car. NeuroRacer uses that test to assess the "multitasking cost," the reduction in accuracy caused by multitasking.

After training with NeuroRacer for 12 hours over the course of a month, the senior citizens were able to perform better than 20-year-old players who had not previously played the game. And they were able to retain those improvements — a drop in the multitasking cost from 65 percent to 16 percent — for six months after the month of training. The exercise also helped the participants' memory and ability to sustain attention, two modes of brain function not directly addressed by NeuroRacer.

"These findings highlight the robust plasticity of the prefrontal cognitive control system in the [aging] brain," said the study's authors. Plasticity, in the context of neurology, refers to the brain's ability to continue developing over time.

"One thing I'm cautious about is that it's not blown out of proportion in that the conclusion from this is that video games are a panacea for all that ails us," said Adam Gazzaley, director of the Neuroscience Imaging Center at the University of California, San Francisco and one of the study's lead authors, in an interview with The Guardian. "The devil's in the details and this was a very carefully constructed game that was targeted to a known neural deficit and a population."

The research done by Gazzaley's team echoes the findings of a different study published earlier this year, in which participants above the age of 50 were able to improve cognition by identifying vehicles in a video game. Some existing commercial video games focus on multitasking, such as the latest Brain Age title, Brain Age: Concentration Training.