According to a study recently published in the scientific journal Nature, video games can actually be used to bring about a dramatic boost in brainpower. The study had a number of healthy individuals aged 60 to 79 spend twelve hours on NeuroRacer, a driving game designed to improve attention and focus.
After their play session, they performed as well as individuals aged half a century younger in terms of focus and attention. This wasn't just a temporary thing, either. The improvements were still evident several months later, and extended well beyond what the subjects learned in-game.
At the start of the study, the older subjects were asked to point out road signs in addition to staying on the road. Their performance dropped by as much as 65%. After a bit of practice, however, the average performance drop was only 16% - lower than the common rate for twentysomethings. That's not just a considerable improvement, it's an incredible one.
In other words, playing games can improve mental focus, increase brain health and teach a whole range of valuable skills. Sounds pretty awesome, right? There's just one small caveat:
In order to be beneficial in such a way, a title needs to be designed to do so. You're not likely to see any sort of vast mental improvements come at the end of a ten-hour stint on Call of Duty, for example. Adam Gazzaley of the University of California-San Francisco, who led the research (and developed NeuroRacer), was quick to caution against assuming the evidence for this study speaks to the health benifits of gaming.
"I don't want people to conclude that video games are some panacea for all that ails us," explained Gazzaley in a telephone conference.
Still, even if games aren't a cure-all for our mental ills, they present a promising means of keeping one's mind sharp as they age. Not only that, according to UCSF emeritus professor Michael Merzenich, they confirm an essential truth about the human brain: even as we age, our minds never stop learning.
"Anybody at any age can be better at almost anything - better than you are today," said Merzenich.
Gazzaley, meanwhile, is working with Akili Interactive labs to design a number of titles similar to NeuroRacer. Eventually, he hopes to commercialize games designed to treat conditions such as ADHD and depression, as well.
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