The old-age population is growing quickly; people are living longer lives, but the same mental and cognitive deficits occur at traditional times. This presents many opportunities for research that can help lead to healthier old age. To this end, a study published in Experimental Brain Research has examined how playing 3D-platform video games can increase executive function in older adults.
Executive function refers to a suite of cognitive processes that regulate behaviors used in goal-attainment: controlling attention, inhibiting cognition, working memory, etc. Used in combination, they result in higher cognitive functions like reasoning and problem solving. As humans age, these capabilities start to decline, accompanied by reduced grey matter in associated brain regions.
In the current study, researchers tested the impact of 3D-platform video gaming on an antisaccade task, which tests the ability of participants to properly ignore a stimulus (inhibition of the reflexive saccade) and perform a saccade, or rapid eye movement, in the opposite direction (execution of the voluntary saccade). Decreased performance is known to correlate with reduced executive function, and indicates loss of inhibitory control, a key process in maintaining attention.
Noting the fact that games like Super Mario 64 require players to inhibit distractions to achieve specific goals (like ignoring coins to evade enemies), the study’s authors hypothesized it would correlate with improved antisaccade test scores and increased grey matter in the Frontal Eye Fields (FEF), a region of the brain responsible for directing eye movement.
Researchers recruited 33 participants aged 55 to 75, divided into three groups: one receiving training in Super Mario 65, one that received piano lessons, and one with no intervention. When tested again, subjects in the game training group demonstrated significant improvements in inhibition of reflexive saccades and, as predicted, increases in the right FEF. The results of the study suggest that frontal inhibitory processes, a key component of executive function, can be improved by training with 3D-platform games.
One limitation of the study, which has important consequences for real-world implementation, was that the video-game group experienced a greater number of drop-outs. The authors attribute this to its greater difficulty. As a result, they highlight the need for video games better suited to older adults.
As life expectancy increases, we will have greater need for regular cognitive upkeep to maintain important functions, a worthwhile goal to which studies like this contribute.
The study, “Playing Super Mario increases oculomotor inhibition and frontal eye field grey matter in older adults“, was authored by Moussa Diarra, Benjamin Rich Zendel, Jessica Benady-Chorney, Caroll-Ann Blanchette, Franco Lepore, Isabelle Peretz, Sylvie Belleville, and Greg L. West.