My dad is an older, recently retired gentleman who is having some trouble keeping busy. During the summer he flourishes, as he loves to do work outside like mow the lawn, trim leaves, and plant new trees. But now that the temperature has dropped and the fall (almost winter) days are upon us, he’s cooped up in the house most of the time. Sure, he’s found some joy and entertainment in reading the paper and tuning into the recent abundance of Alaska-based TV shows, but he needs something to really stimulate his mind.
I’m running low on ideas, as he’s rejected every single one of mine. But new research offers a promising new suggestion that will not only keep my dad entertained, but benefit his mental health: video games. This study “Playing Super Mario 64 Increases hippocampal grey matter in older adults” from the University of Montreal says that 3D platform video games could help older individuals keep their minds sharp and even fight off diseases like Alzheimer’s. The researchers found that older people (specifically between the ages of 55 and 75) who played such games—like the classic Super Mario 64—showed increases in gray matter in multiple areas of the brain associated with memory.
To reach these findings, the team of researchers studied 33 different subjects between the ages of 55 and 75, over the course of six months. These participants were split into three different groups: one group was to play Super Mario 64 for 30 minutes a day, five days a week; another was to take piano lessons with the same time allotment; and the final group was not to perform any specific task. After the six months were up, the researchers then analyzed the effects: using cognitive performance tests and MRIs, they observed brain activity (which they also did at the beginning of the experiment) and looked for major changes in the amount of grey matter present in three areas of the brain significant to cognitive functioning—the cerebellum, the hippocampus, and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.
The MRI tests revealed that the video-game group was the only group to show increases in gray matter volume in the cerebellum and hippocampus: the cerebellum plays a key role in motor control and balance, while the hippocampus is the epicenter of spatial and episodic memory. Researchers also found that participants in this cohort showed improvement in short-term memory. Additionally, the piano-playing group showed increases of gray matter in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (responsible for decision-making and planning), while those assigned to the control group displayed atrophy—or gradual decline—in the cerebellum, the hippocampus, and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.
Psychology professor at University of Montreal Gregory West explains how playing video games can lead to an increase in gray matter: “3D video games engage the hippocampus into creating a cognitive map, or a mental representation, of the virtual environment that the brain is exploring.” He then delves into the topic of cognitive decline and decreases in gray matter, which can result from the brain being bored or underworked. Fortunately, however, this study shows that we can turn it around. “The good news is that we can reverse those effects and increase volume by learning something new, and games like Super Mario 64, which activate the hippocampus, seem to hold some potential in that respect,” he says.
West, G. L., Zendel, B. R., Konishi, K., Benady-Chorney, J., Bohbot, V. D., Peretz, I., & Belleville, S. (2017, December 6). Playing Super Mario 64 increases hippocampal grey matter in older adults. PLOS ONE. Retrieved on December 7 2017 from http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0187779
University of Montreal (2017, December 6). Some Video Games Are Good For Older Adults’ Brains. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved December 6, 2017 from http://neurosciencenews.com/aging-gaming-8125/