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Why Video Games Can Be Good for Your Brain Health

An interview with a neuroscientist who has been studying the connection

By The American Federation for Aging Research (AFAR)

Can playing video games help prevent cognitive decline that comes with aging? Maybe so, according to research by Dr. Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist, neurologist, author and entrepreneur.

Middle-aged woman playing video games wearing a virtual reality headset, health, dementia, Next Avenue
Credit: Getty

Gazzaley is the David Dolby Distinguished Professor of neurology, physiology and psychiatry and chief of the cognitive neuroscience division in the Neurology department at Weill Institute for Neurosciences-University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). He is also the founder and executive director of Neuroscape, a UCSF neuroscience center engaged in technology creation and scientific research to assess and optimize brain function.

In our studies on healthy older adults, we have shown benefits of different types of custom-built video games on both attention and memory abilities.

Bolstered by early grant support from the American Federation for Aging Research, Gazzaley has merged his scientific research with the possibilities of technology to explore the potential of video games as an innovative treatment option for attention and memory.

In this interview, he explains how his research has developed and what's next to improve cognitive health for gamers of all ages.

How do you define 'gaming' in your research? And what led you to intersect your research as a neuroscientist with game development?

The goal to build a video game was not my initial inspiration. I wanted to find a novel approach to improve attention in older adults. This was in response to my research revealing that memory abilities in older adults were impaired by them being more distractible.

I came up with the idea to challenge older individuals with a task that would selectively activate the brain's neural networks involved in attention. The hypothesis was that this would harness their brain's natural plasticity (the ability of neural networks to change through growth and reorganization) to optimize attention abilities over time.

I decided to build a video game because I felt that the fun and immersive nature of play would lead to deeper engagement in the moment and better adherence to this as a treatment over time. And that, in turn, would result in better outcomes.

What is 'cognitive control' and how can gaming help to improve it? And how long do cognitive improvements last? 

Cognitive control defines a set of abilities that allow us to engage in the world in a goal-directed manner. It includes attention, working memory (holding information in mind for short periods of time) and cognitive flexibility (multitasking and task switching).

Neuroscientists have learned over the years that although these aspects of cognitive control are distinct in many ways, they use common neural networks that involve the prefrontal cortex in the brain. Because of this, I hypothesized that if an individual engaged in a video game that challenged cognitive control at a very high level and the game kept pushing them to the edge of their ability, we would see transfer of benefits to cognitive control abilities outside the domain of the game.

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And that is what we have found in almost a dozen studies.

How long the cognitive improvements last is still an open question, although we have shown benefits in some of our studies six months to a year later.

I suspect that for long-lasting improvements, we will need to offer booster doses of the game over time. 

How can gaming prevent normal cognitive decline associated with aging or treat memory disorders like dementia? 

In our studies on healthy older adults, we have shown benefits of different types of custom-built video games on both attention and memory abilities. These games work by challenging our research participants in a 'closed-loop' system. That means they use algorithms that let them challenge and reward the players at an appropriate level based upon their own data.

We are  now advancing our efforts to study if our video games have benefits in older adults who have mild cognitive impairment and the earliest stages of dementia. 

Video games have recently been cleared by the Food and Drug Administration [the FDA] as a prescription treatment for children with ADHD [Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder]. How far is this new frontier of 'playing your medicine' from the cognitive aging space? 

Yes, after a decade of effort by hundreds of people at Neuroscape and Akili [a prescription digital medical company], as well as external scientific research teams, evidence has been generated that resulted in FDA clearance of EndeavorRx.That's a prescription treatment for inattention in children with ADHD. This marks the first FDA-cleared digital treatment for ADHD, and the first prescription treatment for any clinical condition delivered as a video game.

EndeavorRx's clearance creates a new regulatory classification of therapeutics. The goal now is to advance this research and regulatory approval to other populations that would benefit from improved inattention abilities.

Personally, I am very motivated to create solutions for cognitive challenges in older adults; that is where this all began for me. 

Editor’s note: For more insights from Gazzaley, join AFAR, Next Avenue and Prevention for the webinar "Gaming and Your Brain" on Tuesday, March 30, 2021, 4-5 pm ET.

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