Scientists have developed a video game-based training strategy, which they say could “repair” cognitive decline in older individuals, according to a study published in the journal Nature.

Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, have created NeuroRacer, a computer driving game that researchers say could be used to improve multi-tasking and cognitive-control abilities.

The 3D video game challenges cognitive control by providing a series of distractions on the screen that the players must try to avoid while driving. The better the players are at avoiding the distractions, the more challenging the game becomes.

The research team tested the game on 174 adults between 20 and 79 years of age. All participants were required to play the game for 1 hour, three times a week for a period of 1 month, and EEG scans were used to measure the participants’ brain activity.

They were required to play the game in two distinct conditions. The first was a “sign only” task, where the participants were asked to respond as quickly as possible to a particular sign, only when a green circle appeared on the screen.

The second game condition was “sign and drive.” This required participants to simultaneously perform the sign task while driving a car and maintaining its position in the center of a winding road using a joystick.

Using a cost index, the researchers assessed the performance of multi-tasking within the participants by calculating the percentage change in “discriminability” between the “sign only” and “sign and drive” tasks. The more negative a percentage cost, the more distraction occurred when a participant engaged within both tasks.

“The game is adaptive, so when the participants get better, the game gets more challenging and keeps pushing them,” explains Adam Gazzaley, study author and associate professor of neurology, physiology and psychiatry at the Neuroscience Imaging Center of the University of California, San Francisco.

“We also looked at how well some of these abilities sustained over time and how they transferred to other abilities that we did not directly train. We recorded how it impacted them compared to their whole life span.”

The researchers found that adults’ multi-tasking abilities declined throughout every decade of life between the ages of 20 and 80 years.

However, when the game was tested on 16 adults between the ages of 60 and 85, the group showed a dramatic increase in their multi-tasking “costs,” meaning they showed significantly improved multi-tasking abilities.

These improved abilities continued to last for 6 months without any “booster” training on the game.

The researchers note that the older adults who trained on the multi-tasking version of the game also showed benefits in other cognitive areas for which the game did not train.

For example, they showed improvement in the ability to hold attention in dull environments, as well as improvement in working memory – the ability to hold information for brief periods of time.

Additionally, EEG scans of the participants showed increased measurements in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain – the area responsible for problem solving and complex thought.

The researchers say before the game training, the pre-frontal cortex measure was deficient in older adults, compared with younger ones. However, after training, the older adults showed similar activity to the younger adults in this area.

The researchers add that these measurements also correlated with how well the multi-tasking abilities sustained after 6 months, and how much their performance improved within cognitive abilities that the game did not train.

Prof. Gazzaley says it is important to note that NeuroRacer is a very targeted approach to known cognitive deficits in older patients, and that multi-tasking ability is of fundamental importance to them.

He adds:

We feel that by putting pressure on this very basic act of cognitive control, we were able to transfer to other types of cognitive control ability that clearly use a common underlying mechanism to transfer.

It must mean that if it occurs, there is a common basis between these different domains that are related. So when one has pressure on it, deficits in another can be seen.”

Although the video game has been significantly targeted at age-related cognitive issues, Prof. Gazzaley does not rule out the fact that it may be useful to help those with neurological disorders in any age group.

“We know that many other populations and many other individuals that have a disorder that has negatively impacted their brain, often have a problem with cognitive control,” he says.

“So it is reasonable to have confidence that this might impact people who have neurological and psychological conditions in a positive way and those studies have to be performed.”

He adds that at present, the researchers are looking at how NeuroRacer may be able to impact other populations, such as children with ADHD and people with depression.

They are even in the process of turning NeuroRacer into a mobile phone game, but Prof. Gazzaley adds that a series of studies are needed to validate it for impact as a therapeutic treatment for other populations.

“This study itself will not validate it, but it will be the first proof of concept that will allow it to go to the next level and see if it will potentially be commercialized,” he says.

“[This will not be] as a consumer product, but as a medical diagnostic and therapeutic, potentially even going down the route of FDA approval. I think it is an exciting direction but there is obviously a lot more work to be done.”