CNN - A specially designed video game, called NeuroRacer, isn't just for fun, although scientists believe that's one of its key ingredients.
Researchers say this game may help enhance certain cognitive abilities in older adults, such as multitasking and attention span. Results from a study on the game's effects were published today in the journal Nature.
We know that older adults experience declines in cognitive control abilities, including a decrease in sustained attention and working memory.
Previous research has also shown that older adults often experience difficulties in responding to interference -- i.e. distractions from irrelevant information or multitasking attempts, said senior study author Adam Gazzaley, professor of neurology and director of the Neuroscience Imaging Center at the University of California, San Francisco.
An ongoing trend in dementia research is the emphasis on an active lifestyle to prevent or delay memory loss. A study of Swedish twins, for instance, suggests that women who participate in intellectual and cultural activities may have a lower dementia risk. Exercise at midlife for both sexes has also been found to be protective against dementia.
This new video game study is a good example of how challenging the brain can drive improvements, Gazzaley said at a press conference Tuesday.
"All of these things are capitalizing on the fact that our brain's plasticity – that is, its ability to reshape itself structurally, functionally, chemically, in response to the environment -- doesn't end when we go through a critical stage of development, but it exists throughout our lives," he said.
Research has also shown that commercial action video games do have some cognitive benefits in younger populations, Gazzaley said. But his laboratory set out to design a game targeted at healthy older adults.
First, researchers looked at how 174 individuals between the ages of 20 and 79 performed on a diagnostic version of NeuroRacer. The results confirmed previous findings that, as people age, their ability to multitask diminishes.
Then, for a more detailed experiment, researchers recruited 46 additional, healthy adults aged 60 to 85 years old, and gave them a variety of cognitive tests. They were not regular gamers; no one played video games otherwise for more than two hours per month.
Each participant was randomly assigned to play the game in its multi-tasking version, its single-task version or to not have contact with it at all. There were 16 participants in the multitasking version.
In the game, participants were confronted with signs that would pop up, and had to press a button on the video game controller as fast as possible when they saw their target sign. For instance, a target might be a green circle, but the player would also see red circles and green pentagons that were not appropriate for a trigger press. Players were judged on accuracy and speed of reaction.
The second, simultaneous activity for the multi-taskers was driving. Players had to drive a car into the horizon, moving accordingly with the road; they had to slow down going down hills and speed when they went up.
"The road is always turning and always moving up and down, so it's always holding your attention, and while that occurs, these signs pop up," Gazzaley said.
Those who played the multitasking game were told to do so over four weeks for one hour per day, three times a week.
Scientists had participants wear electroencephalography (EEG) caps to examine changes in brain activity before and after training on the game. They also gave participants additional cognitive analyses to see if their abilities had improved after four weeks with the game.
Gazzaley and his colleagues described the game in the study as "fun" partly because the game adapts to players' performance, so it became more challenging for people who were doing better at it, and easier for those doing worse. That allowed players to stay engaged without feeling too bored or frustrated, researchers said.
Participants who played the multitasking version of the game over the four weeks experienced a large drop, on average, in what researchers call "cost reduction," meaning how much worse performance gets when doing two tasks simultaneously instead of just one. Having a low-cost reduction is a good thing.
Older adults showed an average of about 65% cost reduction before game training and 16% after. When they were retested 6 months later, these elderly participants were able to multi-task almost as well without playing the NeuroRacer game in the interim.
By comparison, the cost reduction among a group of untrained 20-year-olds was 27%; this higher number means the older adults did better.
Significantly, those elderly adults who were trained on the multitasking game also showed enhanced abilities in cognitive areas the game did not directly target, such as sustained attention and working memory, Gazzaley said.
What's more, by monitoring brain waves with EEG, Gazzaley and his colleagues found evidence of cognitive ability improvements in the prefrontal cortex from before and after training.
"It really shows that this brain change, this brain activity change that occurs with training is really related to this cognitive control ability that you can see translated into their behavior," he said.
The study is "interesting" and mostly "well designed," but "the population studied here is quite small, and more research is needed," said Heather Snyder, director of scientific operations at the Alzheimer's Association, in an e-mail. "In order to be considered credible, these findings need to be replicated/confirmed, and also demonstrated in larger and more diverse populations."
The study is not directly relatable to commercial video games, Gazzaley said. The game used in this study is a highly customized, interactive environment, created specifically for the purpose of training certain cognitive skills.
"The study has no immediate implications for current medical practice," Snyder said. "And, no one should start playing video games expecting that they will enhance their cognitive abilities."
Researchers have already begun to design tailored video games for other populations with neural deficits, such as individuals with attention deficit disorder. Gazzaley and colleagues are working on four other therapeutic video games.
With NeuroRacer, they're looking at how other groups such as individuals with depression and children with ADHD would respond. A Boston-based company is working on developing a mobile version of this game that will go through further validation studies, to see if it could become a therapeutic tool in different populations.
As in the game, researchers have a long road ahead.