A new Canadian study published in the journal PLOS ONE shows that playing 3D platform games, such as Super Mario 64, can help stave off mild cognitive impairment in older adults and perhaps even prevent Alzheimer’s disease.
In an earlier study, the researchers at the Université de Montréal found that playing 3D video games of logic and puzzles like Super Mario 64 increased gray matter in younger participants in their twenties.
In the new study, they wanted to see if the results could be replicated among healthy seniors.
The hippocampus is a region of the brain associated with spatial and episodic memory, a key factor in long-term cognitive health. The gray matter it contains acts as a marker for neurological disorders that can occur over time, including mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s.
The researchers recruited 33 participants aged 55 to 75 and randomly assigned them to three different groups. Participants were instructed to either play Super Mario 64 for 30 minutes a day, five days a week, take piano lessons (for the first time in their life) with the same frequency and in the same sequence, or not perform any particular task.
The six-month experiment took place in the participants’ homes, where the consoles and pianos, provided by West’s team, were installed.
The researchers analyzed the participants’ cognitive skills at the beginning and the end of the exercise, six months later, using two different measurements: cognitive performance tests and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to measure variations in the volume of gray matter.
This method allowed the researchers to observe brain activity and any changes in three areas: the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex that controls planning, decision-making and inhibition; the cerebellum that plays a major role in motor control and balance; and the hippocampus, the center of spatial and episodic memory.
According to the MRI test results, only the participants in the video-game cohort saw increases in gray matter volume in the hippocampus and cerebellum. Their short-term memory also improved.
“These findings can also be used to drive future research on Alzheimer’s, since there is a link between the volume of the hippocampus and the risk of developing the disease,” said researcher Sylvie Belleville, a professor of psychology at the Université de Montréal.
The tests also showed gray matter increases in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and cerebellum of the participants who took piano lessons, whereas some degree of atrophy was noted in all three areas of the brain among those in the passive control group.
So what is the mechanism leading to increases in gray matter, particularly in the hippocampus, after playing video games?
“3-D video games engage the hippocampus into creating a cognitive map, or a mental representation, of the virtual environment that the brain is exploring,” said researcher Gregory West, a professor of psychology at the Université de Montréal. “Several studies suggest stimulation of the hippocampus increases both functional activity and gray matter within this region.”
Conversely, when the brain is not learning new things, gray matter atrophies as people get older.
“The good news is that we can reverse those effects and increase volume by learning something new, and games like Super Mario 64, which activate the hippocampus, seem to hold some potential in that respect,” said West.
“It remains to be seen,” concluded West, “whether it is specifically brain activity associated with spatial memory that affects plasticity, or whether it’s simply a matter of learning something new.”
Source: Université de Montréal