Video games aid older brains, research says

SAN FRANCISCO — Video games, largely considered the province of the young, may help the elderly, according to a study looking to boost memory among those ages 60 and older.

A car-racing game played for 12 hours helped 60- to 85- year-old players improve their memory and attention span, and the effects lasted for six months, according to research published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

Nintendo Co., the Kyoto, Japan-based maker of the Wii console, and closely held Posit Science Corp. of San Francisco, are among companies that have targeted the elderly and baby boomers with video games meant to improve their minds. Video games may offer the same memory benefits that games such as Sudoku have shown in population studies, said Maria Carrillo, the vice president of medical and scientific relations at the Chicago-based Alzheimer’s Association.

“Challenging yourself with new situations is needed for maintaining your brain,” Carrillo said Wednesday. “The healthier our brain is, the more we can withstand cognitive aging.”

In the study, the video-game players raced a car resembling a Volkswagen Beetle around a gray, yellow and red track surrounded by green hills. Road signs resembling rear-view mirrors would pop up in the middle of the screen, displaying different shapes and colors. Participants were expected to press a button when a sign of a specific shape and color appeared.

The task split the players’ attention, requiring them to steer the car and monitor the signs for relevance, said Adam Gazzaley, an associate professor of neurology at the University of California, San Francisco, and an author of the study. The game’s design addressed difficulties older patients often have with multitasking, he said.

After 12 hours of training, the elderly players improved so much that they could beat people in their 20s who were trying the game for the first time.

Gazzaley co-founded a company called Akili Interactive Labs, which will develop a new, mobile version of the game. His group will test both versions of the game and choose other populations to see if they benefit as well. His lab is developing four more games aimed at different populations and targeting different cognitive abilities.

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