Some people as old as 80, the researchers say, begin to show neurological patterns of people in their 20s.
Brain scientists have discovered that swerving around cars while simultaneously picking out road signs in a video game can improve the short-term memory and long-term focus of older adults.
Cognitive scientists say the findings, to be published Thursday in the scientific journal Nature, are a significant development in understanding how to strengthen older brains. That is because the improvements in brain performance did not come just within the game but were shown outside the game in other cognitive tasks.
Further supporting the findings, the researchers were able to measure and show changes in brain wave activity, suggesting that this research could help understand what neurological mechanisms should and could be tinkered with to improve memory and attention.
The research “shows you can take older people who aren’t functioning well and make them cognitively younger through this training,” said Earl K. Miller, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was not affiliated with the research. “It’s a very big deal.”
The study highlights an emerging field in which researchers are trying to better define and even expand the limits of attention, which is seen as crucial to performance, memory and intelligence. Previous studies, done at the University of Rochester and focused more on young people, show that heavy use of certain off-the-shelf, intense shooting games can lead to improvements in a user’s ability to ignore distractions, and even learn.
Still, this generation of research came with other strong warnings from neuroscientists, who say it in no way proved that interacting with computers provided a surefire way to get smarter. Dr. Miller said most so-called brain games did not work as advertised, and the research shows that scientists should develop the games and objectively test their effectiveness.
The latest research was the product of a four-year $300,000 study done at the University of California, San Francisco. Neuroscientists there, led by Dr. Adam Gazzaley, worked with developers to create NeuroRacer, a relatively simple video game in which players drive and try to identify specific road signs that pop up on the screen, while ignoring other signs deemed irrelevant.
One of the main early findings of the study reinforced just how challenging it is to multitask successfully, particularly as people age. People in their 20s experienced a 26 percent drop in performance when they were asked to try to drive and identify signs at the same time (rather than just identify the signs without driving). For people in their 60s to 80s, the performance drop was 64 percent.
But after the older adults trained at the game, they became more proficient than untrained people in their 20s. The performance levels were sustained for six months, even without additional training. Also, the older adults performed better at memory and attention tests outside the game.
“There’s a big leap between what we did here and the real world,” he said. If someone tries to multitask in everyday life, his performance could remain steady or be harmed by the divided attention. The tools people use, he said, must have scientific rigor behind them in the same way that training of great athletes requires a regimen.
The researchers created a second layer of proof by monitoring the brain waves of participants using electroencephalography. What they found was that in older participants, in their 60s to 80s, there were increases in a brain wave called theta, a low-level frequency associated with attention. When older subjects trained on the game, they showed increased bursts of theta, the very types of bursts seen regularly in people in their 20s.