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Cognitive Abilities and Video Games

Sep 15, 2017 by Comfort Keepers Newark, DE

Videogames have always been a hot topic (especially amongst concerned parents) about brain health. New research suggests a possible links between different styles of videogames and certain effects on our brains. Can video games not only be used to maintain cognitive abilities but also improve them in senior or others experiencing a reduction in cognitive abilities or motor-skills?

To put this in perspective, let’s first examine the effects of passive video games or instances where test subjects are primarily stationary.

A recent Canadian study1 suggests that those who play games on ‘auto-pilot’ or using learned responses experience a reduction in size of the hippocampus.

Effect on the Hippocampus

The part of the brain focused on in this study was the hippocampus. It is responsible for episodic and spatial memory. The way researchers determined how the hippocampus was affected was by how much its gray matter increased or decreased.

Less gray matter in the hippocampus is linked to psychological conditions such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and Alzheimer’s. Showing a link between certain styles of video games and a lower amount of gray matter could be an important find.

Difference in Method Yields Different Results

The results were unexpected. It turns out that different styles of videogames affect the brain differently.

For the good news, players who played games that rely on spatial strategies or give alternative paths/results each time were shown to have increased hippocampus size. Interestingly, those who played Super Mario games showed an increase in either the hippocampus or a different part of the brain called the entorhinal cortex.

The players who suffered from playing videogames were those who played based off of learned responses. Instead of actively engaging in the challenges at hand, these types of games or the method these players use involve them running on autopilot, if you will. This unfortunately results in the shrinking of gray matter in the hippocampus. It’s not to say that playing these types of games will cause you to develop any of the psychological conditions mentioned above, but it is an interesting find.

Additionally, while these researchers aren’t saying there’s a direct link between these types of videogames and the possible effects, the concept can open doors for more research into types of memory games and brain training for psychiatric patients.

Cognitive Decline and Seniors?

Populations Studied

This is where it gets interesting, in a series of 17 randomized controlled trials published in the July 2017 issue of Science Direct – there appears to be a correlation between active video games (“exergames”) and an improvement in cognitive abilities. The mean ages of the groups in these studies ranged in age from 16 to 84 years, with 14 of the groups having a mean age of between 60 and 80.

Of the populations studied – 5 groups had either Parkinson ’s disease or some form mild cognitive impairment – these groups participated in various types of stimuli involving exergames and actual physical exercise ranging from walking on a treadmill in a virtual environment (avoiding obstacles, pathway changes, etc.) to sitting stationary and engaging with interactive Wii games requiring upper-body activity.

Comparing ‘Exergames’ and Physical Activity

Besides exhibiting a general improvement of cognitive ability over normal or traditional care and methods, study participants who used exergames outperformed in areas of executive functions and also demonstrated improvement in “…visuospatial skills, attention and processing speed. No effects observed in language, spatial learning and memory or verbal learning and memory abilities.2

What Does This Mean For Seniors?

The authors of the meta-analysis of these studies raise a valid point that some of the improvements may be attributed to the novelty of the activities and further study is required to incorporate longer time-periods into their data. However, the short term results for subjects with Parkinson’s disease, dementia and cognitive decline suggest that a combination of physical and mental engagement can lead to observable improvements in symptoms.

Regardless, Take a Break from the Controller

Even though some videogames may be shown to benefit your brain, too much of a good thing is still a bad thing. Make sure you or your senior maintains a balanced lifestyle including mental activities, physical activities and using their social skills. 

SOURCES:

1http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/shooting-video-games-health-1.4237361

2http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S014976341730129X#sec0035

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