Good news for all of you video game buffs out there; a new study finds playing 3D video games may help boost memory, possibly opening the door to a new way to maintain cognitive functioning as we age.

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Researchers say 3D video games could be used to maintain cognitive functioning as we age.

Video games are not normally viewed in a positive light in terms of health; previous studies have claimed they promote sedentary behavior, while violent video games have been linked to aggressive behavior and reduced self-control.

Increasingly, however, researchers are finding video games may have some benefits. Earlier this year, Medical News Today reported on a study that found Tetris could reduce cravings, while other research suggested story-based video games could help people with autism.

Now, researchers from the University of California-Irvine (UCI) suggest the benefits of video games could reach even further, possibly helping people with dementia or other conditions associated with memory loss.

They publish their findings in The Journal of Neuroscience.

Study coauthors Craig Stark and Dane Clemenson, of the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning & Memory at UCI, asked a number of non-gamer college students to play one of two video games for 30 minutes daily for 2 weeks – either the 2D game “Angry Birds” or the 3D game “Super Mario 3D world.”

Students took part in memory tests both before and after the 2-week gaming period, which involved them viewing images of specific everyday objects. They were then shown images of the same objects, new objects and objects that differed slightly from the original images and were asked to categorize each one.

Such tests engage the hippocampus – the brain region associated with memory and learning – according to Stark, and previous studies he conducted showed that the ability to perform well on such tests reduces as we age.

Compared with students who played the 2D game over the 2-week period, those who played the 3D game improved memory performance by around 12%.

To put this in context, the team notes that between the ages of 45-70, memory performance normally reduces by around 12%, suggesting that 3D video games could help maintain cognitive functioning as we age.

But why do 3D video games appear to boost memory while 2D games do not?

Previous studies by Clemenson and colleagues found rodents that explored an environment showed increased neuronal growth and signaling in the hippocampus, and the team notes there are similarities between the environment the rodents explored and the 3D game the students played.

Fast facts about video gaming in the US
  • More than 150 million Americans play video games
  • The average gamer is 35 years old
  • Last year, the video gaming industry generated more than $22 billion in revenue.

Stark explains that 3D games contain more spatial information than 2D, giving the player more to explore. What is more, 3D games are significantly more complex, meaning the player has more to learn.

Stark adds that video games activate cognitive processes, including visual, spatial, attentional, motivational and emotional processes, as well as critical thinking, problem-solving and working memory.

“It’s quite possible that by explicitly avoiding a narrow focus on a single […] cognitive domain and by more closely paralleling natural experience, immersive video games may be better suited to provide enriching experiences that translate into functional gains,” he explains.

Next, the team plans to determine whether 3D video games or other real-world exploration experiences can help reverse cognitive declines in older individuals.

“Can we use this video game approach to help improve hippocampus functioning? It’s often suggested that an active, engaged lifestyle can be a real factor in stemming cognitive aging,” says Stark. “While we can’t all travel the world on vacation, we can do many other things to keep us cognitively engaged and active. Video games may be a nice, viable route.”

Medical News Today recently reported on a study that claims older adults who engage in physical activity may benefit from better memory.