The evidence on video games and brain function

631px-Video_Game_Barnstar_HiresAs the U.S. population continues to age, researchers warn us more people than ever before will grapple with neurological disease like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, as many as 16 million Americans could be suffering from some form of dementia by the year 2050, up from 5 million today.

Popular media is awash with ideas on how to improve brain function later in life. In recent years, one idea gaining in popularity is video games. Dozens of companies offer brain-training exercises in traditional video game consoles and online; a recent story in the New York Times estimates Americans spend $1.3 billion a year on these games. But do they work?

The short answer is, researchers aren’t sure. This month, an international group of 73 scientists focused on psychology, neurology and aging, published a consensus statement  reporting that the scientific literature does not show that computer-based “brain games” improve brain function or prevent brain disease.

In their statement, the researchers discuss the idea that marketing brain games as a “magic bullet” to ward off cognitive decline exploits older people, who are likely to feel anxious about changes in normal cognitive function and about neurological diseases.  The scientists also call for more careful research to help determine if and how these types of exercises can sharpen the aging mind.

The fact is, there is some evidence that specific mind exercises can help improve cognitive skills. In one of the most famous studies on the topic published in the journal Nature, a California neuroscientist found that a game he developed helped older adults improve multitasking skills, sustained attention and working memory six months after they played the game.

Another long-term study called Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health, also found positive results. In this study, older adults participated in computer-based memory training, and then researchers followed them for 10 years. After 10 years, those who participated in cognitive training experienced fewer declines in memory, reasoning skills and cognitive speed compared to those who didn’t participate in the training.

But there are plenty of other studies that have found these types of games yield little or no improvement in cognitive function. And to-date, there is absolutely no evidence that these kinds of games can prevent neurological disease.

For the games to work, the devil appears to be in the details. For example, the game used in the California study requires participants to use multiple mental abilities at the same time – a feature that seems to improve the lasting effects of these exercises.

For now, the take-home message is this: Some brain-training exercises may help improve cognitive function later in life. But there is no clear evidence that they can help prevent disease. No matter what future research finds, this is a body of research that aging baby boomers should be paying close attention to.

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