Take two hours of video games a day and see me in three months? Perhaps not so fast.
As the use of technology to track and improve physical fitness proliferates (think Fitbit, GPS watches, etc.), Dr. Adam Gazzaley is putting cognitive fitness at the center of attention and looking at ways that technology (specifically video games) can improve cognitive function .
At a recent Behavior and Social Science Research lecture, Gazzaley explained that current approaches to increase cognitive function lack quality assessments, fail to target particular neural networks , and are generally too generic. He hopes to create a targeted, personalized, multi-modal, closed-loop system that will change individual brain development in a meaningful and sustainable way.
How it works: The three elements of cognitive control and neuroplasticity
- Attention: a person’s ability to focus;
- Working memory: the maintenance and manipulation of information that is no longer present in the environment;
- Goal management: a person’s ability to switch between goals.
While there are fundamental limitations to each of these abilities, experiences can alter how they function together. Gazzaley points out that neuroplasticity is a very strong relationship between experience and learningand he is using technology to create learning experiences that positively impact plasticity.
An active social media user himself, Gazzaley, or @adamgazz is using the video game environment to create a closed loop between a person’s brain and the game . While someone is playing a game, the researcher records various aspects of the person’s performance (using motion capture, for example) and, in real time, feeds that information back into the game. The game then adaptively adjusts the challenge to be appropriate for that person’s ability.
Video games to enhance cognitive function in older adults
Healthy older adults have age-related impairments in all three cognitive domains. Gazzaley used his first video game, Neuroracer (described below), to determine whether putting pressure on one cognitive domain could improve the others in healthy older adults. For example, if the game challenged multitasking, would attention and working memory improve?
Gazzaley’s findings from the game are interesting: people who played the game on just one day, there was an age-related decline in multitasking and in prefrontal cortex activity, with people in their 20s having higher scores of both measures than people in their 70s. However, people in their 70s who had trained over the course of a month multitasked better than untrained people in their 20s, and had more prefrontal cortical activity. Additionally, working memory and attention span were also improved. These benefits for the older adult participants lasted even six months after the training was complete.
Gazzaley’s first video game, Neuroracer, developed and tested eight years ago, was initially built in collaboration with a video game company. The players’ task was to keep a moving car on a road while simultaneously responding to shape cues on passing signs. The game progressed only as a player got better at both tasks, thus forming a closed loop between cognitive ability and the game. Neuroracer is now being more fully developed in the private sector for larger clinical trials. Also, a newer version of it has been tested on individuals with attention deficit disorder (ADD) and is being presented to the FDA as a medical device in the treatment of ADD. Trials are also starting for autism, depression, traumatic brain injury, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Video games: the wave of the future in cognitive treatment?
Gazzaley’s excitement over the early and ongoing success of Neuroracer motivated other projects. He built an entire lab space to test new technologies, including video games, virtual reality, and motion capture. The space looks more like an expensive home theater than a neuroscience lab, but that hasn’t stopped Gazzaley and his team from innovating. Some of their newer tools, most of which are already being tested in large clinical trials, include:
- An app for rapid assessments of cognitive function, currently being finalized in collaboration with Apple.
- Body-Brain Trainer, a game that challenges players with physical and cognitive exercise simultaneously.
- Rhythmicity, a game whose premise is that improving someone’s rhythm will improve cognition that depends on rhythmic brain activity.
Gazzaley stresses that his collaborations with private companies have been essential. He says that making games appealing and fun, with good storylines, artwork and music is key to getting people to use them; without the expertise of commercial video game companies, creating great games would not have been possible.
Overall, Gazzaley is enthusiastic that these games will create a paradigm shift in cognitive treatment. games are more targeted than pills, may have fewer side effects, and are personalized not only to an individual but also to how that individual’s abilities change over time.
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Photo Credit: Fotolia: Two Brains Studios