The BBC reported recently that brain training – playing digital games that test memory and reasoning – might actually benefit older people.
Researchers from King’s College London found that online mental exercises were not only keeping minds sharp but helping people with everyday skills such as shopping and cooking.
The study, conducted over six months and involving nearly 7,000 people aged 50 and over, sought to answer a question that has long interested researchers.
Do players only get better at the games they play, or do the skills that they improve – memory, for example – bring benefits in real life? In other words, can they help you remember where you left your keys?
The King’s College London study suggests the benefits of gaming do indeed extend beyond simple improvements in your game score and can help with other daily activities. The trick, it appears, is consistency and persistence: people who played the game at least five times a week for 10 minutes saw the most benefit.
So if game-based training can improve cognitive functions affected by natural ageing, could they also be useful for patients with impaired attention and memory caused by brain tumours or surgery?
It’s a complex field, but the short answer is: “Perhaps“. In one research study, patients with a glioma who received computer-based training improved their attention and memory skills significantly more than patients with no training.
In another study, cognitive training exercises appeared to boost the memory skills of children with various types of acquired brain injury.
If the brain can be ‘trained’ in this way, it is thanks to neuroplasticity, which allows brain structure and function to adapt as we learn. Neural pathways that we frequently use become stronger, while those that we rarely use are lost or ‘pruned’. This keeps the brain tidy and efficient, ensuring that we use our energy in the right places.
By repeatedly exercising cognitive functions, we reactivate and strengthen the important neural pathways underlying them. These pathways are then likely to be more reliable in the future.
If regular gaming can tap into plasticity in the right places, then important functions can be trained and improved in the brain.
Dr Misirlisoy is currently working with brain-training game developer Peak.