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Science in Mind

Video games could help aging minds stay sharp

The progressively challenging video game NeuroRacer requires players to navigate a winding mountain road.  Performance improved in those who played more often.

The Gazzaley Lab/ University of California, San Francisco

The progressively challenging video game NeuroRacer requires players to navigate a winding mountain road. Performance improved in those who played more often.

People will try just about anything to keep their memories sharp and their minds youthful. Now, a study suggests that regularly playing a video game that requires people to multitask can improve basic cognitive functions, such as their abilities to hold a thought in mind or pay attention.

Older adults regained that ability after they trained on a driving computer game during which they had to periodically respond to a sign, researchers reported in the journal Nature on Wednesday.

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“All these things are capitalizing on the fact that our brain’s plasticity to reshape itself structurally, functionally, and chemically doesn’t end when we go through a critical stage of development, but it exists through our lives,” said Dr. Adam Gazzaley, director of the Neuroscience Imaging Center at the University of California, San Francisco, who led the work.

The game, NeuroRacer, is a simple driving task requiring participants to navigate a winding mountain road that gets progressively more challenging. When a particular sign pops up on the screen, players respond by pressing a button as rapidly as they can.

The researchers measured the decline in performance that occurred when the players, aged 60 to 85, had to drive and respond to signs. Having to do both simultaneously resulted in a 64 percent cost, on average, to their performance. But after people played the game for 12 hours over a monthlong period, they improved, experiencing less of a drop in performance than 20-year-olds who played the game once.

Gazzaley is a cofounder of a Boston-based company, Akili Interactive Labs, that is already working to adapt the basic principles of the research to a more sophisticated mobile game, called Project Evo.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.
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