Cognition — the ability to clearly think, learn, and remember — is an integral part of who we are. But as we age, it tends to decline, and for many older adults, the effects are so serious that they’re unable to live independently. Thankfully, scientists have developed a video game that appears to increase short-term memory and long-term focus in older people.
The science and other stuff to know
After a decade of work, scientists at UC San Francisco’s Neuroscape Center have developed a set of video games that tend to improve key aspects of cognition in aging adults. Each game employs adaptive closed-loop algorithms that researchers pioneered in the widely cited 2013 study published in Nature, which first demonstrated it was possible to restore diminished mental faculties in older people with just four weeks of training on a specially designed video game.
The scientists’ recent invention is a musical rhythm game that not only teaches drumming but also improves short-term memory. In a study exploring the game’s effects, researchers observed adults aged 60 to 79 playing the game for 20 minutes each day, five days per week for eight weeks.
The eight-week program taught participants how to play a rhythm on an electronic tablet using visual cues. The algorithm matched the degree of difficulty to each player’s ability. While playing, the cues disappeared, forcing the players to memorize the rhythmic pattern.
After eight weeks, the participants were better at remembering faces. When analyzed via electroencephalography (EEG), the readings showed increased activity in the superior parietal lobule—the brain region linked to sight reading music and short-term visual memory.
It’s true that a decline in cognitive control often comes as we age; however, this game is evidence that there are ways to maintain our mental sharpness. According to co-author Adam Gazzaley, MD, Ph.D., the game can be adapted to clinical populations as a new form of “experiential medicine”, as it showed benefits on an array of important cognitive processes, including short-term memory, attention, as well as long-term focus.
“That memory improved at all was amazing,” said Theodore Zanto, Ph.D., an associate professor of neurology at the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences and director of the Neuroscience Division at Neuroscape. “There is a very strong memory training component to this, and it generalized to other forms of memory.”
These same scientists have also developed another video game, Body Brain Trainer, that researchers claim improved blood pressure, balance, and attention in the elderly. Besides such video games, health experts recommend other ways to improve memory, including exercising, eating less sugar, and always learning new things.