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50+: Live Better, Longer

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Video Game May Erase Effects of Aging on the Brain

Seniors who played a game designed by neuroscientists for a month multitasked as well as younger players


"It would be a medical diagnostic and therapeutic, potentially even going the route of FDA approval," Dr. Adam Gazzaley, director of the Neuroscience Imaging Center at the University of California, San Francisco, said during a Tuesday news conference on the findings. Gazzaley is a co-founder of the company that is developing the next generation of the video game. The study was funded by Health Games Research, a program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the U.S. National Institute on Aging.

For the research, scientists recruited 174 healthy adults aged 20 to 80. About 30 people from each decade of life were asked to play the NeuroRacer game to see how well they were able to multitask. These first tests showed that the ability to multitask gets worse with age. Adults in their 20s saw a 28 percent drop in performance when they were doing two things at once, while those in their 30s saw their performance drop about 39 percent.

Next, they wanted to see whether people could get better at multitasking with practice. For these experiments, they picked 46 healthy seniors who were between the ages of 60 and 85 and assigned them to one of three groups: 16 were asked to play the NeuroRacer game for an hour a day three times a week, 15 played a version of the game that required them to do only a single task at a time and 15 others didn't play the game at all.

After a month, seniors who had practiced multitasking with NeuroRacer showed big gains compared to their peers in the other two groups.

The drop in performance that everyone experiences when they try to do two things at once "improved dramatically from 65 percent to 16 percent, and even reached a level better than 20-year-olds," who had only played the game once, Gazzaley said.

What's more, seniors who played for an hour a day three days a week saw improvements in other mental skills that weren't directly trained by the game. Working memory, or "the ability to hold information in mind, as people do when they're participating in a conversation and they have to think about what they want to say and remember it while they wait their turn to speak" got better, Gazzaley said, as did their visual attention (the ability to sustain focus on a task in a boring environment).

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