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Gaming for grey matter

Video gaming staves off Alzheimer’s disease, research shows


By Michelle Osmond

The Faculty of Medicine’s newest Canada Research Chair knows that diseases like Alzheimer’s can potentially be reversed.

Dr. Benjamin Zendel, Canada Research Chair in Aging and Auditory Neuroscience, was part of a study that found playing video games on a regular basis can improve cognitive functions in seniors.

However, the researchers say they actually had a different purpose in mind when they began the study.

From piano to video

The lead researcher was Dr. Gregory West of the University of Montréal with partners from Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal and Montreal’s Douglas Hospital.

“Interestingly, the main purpose of this study was to examine how piano training impacts hearing abilities and the video game group was meant as a placebo control,” explained Dr. Zendel.

“Dr. West, who is an expert in the visual system, added a few visual tasks that he thought might benefit from video game training, and he was right.”

Super Mario 64

In previous studies, young adults were asked to play 3D video games of logic and complete puzzles on gaming platforms like Super Mario 64.

Findings showed that grey matter in the hippocampus increased. That’s the region of the brain associated with spatial and episodic memory, a key factor in long-term cognitive health.

In it, grey matter acts as a marker for neurological disorders that can occur over time, including mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s.

Dr. Zendel and his colleagues wondered if they’d get the same results with healthy seniors.

In the comfort of home

They recruited 33 people, aged 55-75, and assigned them to three separate groups: one that played Super Mario 64 for 30 minutes a day, five days a week; one that took piano lessons for the first time with the same frequency and sequence; and one that did not perform any particular task.

The experiment lasted six months and was conducted in the participants’ homes.

The researchers used both cognitive performance tests and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to measure variations in the volume of grey matter, observing brain activity in planning, decision-making and inhibition; motor control and balance; and the hippocampus.

Cognitive map

According to the MRI results, only the video game group participants showed increases in grey matter volume in the hippocampus. Their short-term memory also improved.

The tests also revealed grey matter increased in the other areas of the brain for the piano lesson participants, whereas some degree of atrophy was noted in all three areas of the brain among those who did none of the tasks.

The conclusion: 3D video games engage the hippocampus enough to create a cognitive map, or a mental representation, of the virtual environment that the brain is exploring. Several studies suggest stimulation of the hippocampus increases both functional activity and grey matter.

Conversely, when the brain is not learning new things, grey matter atrophies as people age. These findings could 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.

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