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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

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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).

Additional tests, which measured the brain's electrical activity, showed a boost in areas responsible for cognitive control, the skill that helps the brain switch back and forth between activities.

The improvements in mental function lasted for about six months after seniors stopped playing, the researchers said.

What remains to be seen, experts said, is whether these improvements will help people in real life.

"They could argue that if you got better at this game then maybe you would be a safer driver when you're elderly," Krakauer said. "You may be able to look for what exit you need to take and stick to the road."

"[But] they haven't tested that," he said. "We don't know the answer to that."

The researchers agreed.

"In order to see improvement in daily life, you need larger numbers of people" who are studied for a longer period of time, Gazzaley said. Planning for those studies is currently in the works.

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