A specially designed 3-D video game can reverse some of the negative effects of ageing on the brain and improve cognitive performance in older adults, a new study suggests.
In the game developed by researchers at University of California, San Francisco, participants race a car around a winding track while a variety of road signs pop up.
Drivers are instructed to keep an eye out for a specific type of sign, while ignoring all the rest, and to press a button whenever that particular sign appears.
The need to switch rapidly from driving to responding to the signs, multitasking, generates interference in the brain that undermines performance.
The researchers found that this interference increases dramatically across the adult lifespan.
But after receiving just 12 hours of training on the game, spread over a month, the 60- to 85-year-old study participants improved their performance until it surpassed that of 20-somethings who played the game for the first time.
The training also improved the participants' performance in two other important cognitive areas: working memory and sustained attention. And participants maintained their skills at the video game six months after the training had ended.
"The finding is a powerful example of how plastic the older brain is," said Adam Gazzaley, UCSF associate professor of neurology, physiology and psychiatry and director of the Neuroscience Imaging Center.
Gazzaley, said his game, NeuroRacer, does more than any ordinary game - be it bridge, a crossword puzzle, or an off-the-shelf video game - to condition the brain.
Like a good teacher, he said, NeuroRacer undermines people's natural tendency to go on automatic pilot once they've mastered a skill, and pushes them further than they think they can go.
Gazzaley said it's encouraging that even a small amount of brain training can reverse some of the age-related decline.
Gazzaley's group found evidence of a possible brain mechanism that may explain the improvements he saw in his older subjects, and why these gains transferred to other cognitive areas.
Electroencephalograph (EEG) recordings point to changes in a neural network involved in cognitive control, which is necessary to pursue goals, researchers said.
The study was published in the journal Nature.