Playing video games like Super Mario can help reverse ageing
For those between 55 and 75 years old, 3D platform games such as Super Mario may help prevent mild cognitive impairment and even Alzheimer’s disease.
The findings were made in Canadian study by psychology professors Gregory West, Sylvie Belleville and Isabelle Peretz of Montreal University.
Published in PLOS ONE, it was done in cooperation with the Institut universitaire de geriatrie de Montreal (IUGM), Benjamin Rich Zendel of Memorial University in Newfoundland, and Veronique Bohbot of Montreal’s Douglas Hospital Research Centre.
In two separate studies, in 2014 and 2017, young adults in their twenties were asked to play 3D video games of logic and puzzles on platforms such as Super Mario 64.
Video games stimulate brain areas that can atrophy in old age
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.
Findings showed that the gray matter in their hippocampus increased after training.
The hippocampus is the region of the brain primarily associated with spatial and episodic memory, a key factor in long-term cognitive health.
The gray matter it contains acts as a marker for neurological disorders that can occur over time, including mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s.
Professor West and his colleagues wanted to see if the results could be replicated among healthy seniors.
The research team recruited 33 people, ages 55 to 75, who were randomly assigned to three separate groups.
Participants were instructed to play Super Mario 64 for 30 minutes a day, five days a week, take piano lessons (for the first time in their life) with the same frequency and in the same sequence, or not perform any particular task.
The experiment lasted six months and was conducted in the participants’ homes, where the consoles and pianos, provided by West’s team, were installed.
The researchers evaluated the effects of the experiment at the beginning and at the end of the exercise, six months later, using two different measurements: cognitive performance tests and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to measure variations in the volume of gray matter.
Platform games like Super Mario 64 have benefit the brain as we visualise virtual worlds
This enabled them to observe brain activity and any changes in three areas: the prefrontal cortex that controls planning, decision-making and inhibition; the cerebellum that plays a major role in motor control and balance and the hippocampus, the centre of spatial and episodic memory.
According to the MRI test results, only the participants in the video-game cohort saw increases in gray matter volume in the hippocampus and cerebellum.
Their short-term memory also improved.
The tests also revealed some degree of atrophy of brain cells noted in all three areas of the brain among those in the passive control group.
Professor West said: “3-D video games engage the hippocampus into creating a cognitive map, or a mental representation, of the virtual environment that the brain is exploring.
Learning something new through gaming is helpful in growing the volume of gray matter in our brains
“Several studies suggest stimulation of the hippocampus increases both functional activity and gray matter within this region.”
Conversely, when the brain is not learning new things, gray matter atrophies as people age.
“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.
“It remains to be seen, whether it is specifically brain activity associated with spatial memory that affects plasticity, or whether it’s simply a matter of learning something new.”
Professor Belleville added: “These findings can also 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.”
This research could be used to drive Alzheimer’s studies into the same areas of the brain