Researchers at the University of California San Francisco have developed a suite of video games that have been designed to improve cognition in older adults who are otherwise healthy. The games aim to recreate common activities, such as banging a drum or driving a car. They also include a sophisticated algorithm that automatically adjusts the game difficulty depending on how well someone is playing, helping to stop less skilled players from becoming overwhelmed and more skilled players from becoming bored. In trials so far, the games have produced impressive efficacy with a variety of cognitive metrics, including long- and short-term memory and attention.
Cognitive decline is a common occurrence with aging, but this latest technology aims to show that many of these changes are not set in stone and are at least partly reversible. It consists of a suite of video games, something we typically associate with children, teenagers, and young adults. However, it seems that older people have a lot to gain from playing video games, or at least from playing these particular games that are designed to help reverse some aspects of age-related cognitive decline.
The researchers hope that such technology could form a new field of medicine called “experiential medicine”, in which non-invasive virtual interventions could help to address a wide array of health issues. The games aim to reawaken cognitive skills and processes that tend to decline with age.
“All of these are taking experiences and delivering them in a very personalized, fun manner, and our brains respond through a process called plasticity,” said Adam Gazzaley, a researcher involved in the study. “Experiences are a powerful way of changing our brain, and this form of experience allows us to deliver it in a manner that’s very accessible.”
To date, the researchers have created a rhythm-based game, in which a participant bangs a virtual drum on a tablet computer. The participants have to match a rhythmic pattern, and as time passes the cues the participant receives disappear, forcing them to rely on their memory to replicate the beat.
Strikingly, the game did not just improve the participant’s ability to hold a beat, but it also improved their ability to remember faces, suggesting that the games could have off-target benefits in other cognitive areas that are not directly targeted during gameplay.
“That memory improved at all was amazing,” said Theodore Zanto, another researcher involved in the study. “There is a very strong memory training component to this, and it generalized to other forms of memory.”
See a video about the technology below.
Study in journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: How musical rhythm training improves short-term memory for faces