Keeping the brain nimble in older adulthood may be as simple as playing a
video game, according to researchers who compared the thought-process benefits
of crossword puzzles with a computer program that increased users' mental speed
Analysing 681 healthy people aged 50 and up, scientists found that those who
played a "Road Tour" video game for at least 10 hours - which required them to
identify "vehicles" among an ever-faster array - gained at least three years of
cognitive (mental skill) improvement after one year. A group that received four
additional hours of training with the game improved their thinking abilities by
"The bad news about brain plasticity is that we start slowing down in our
early 30s and it continues. The good news is, with the right kind of training
programmes, we can regain what we've lost and maybe get people to higher
levels," said study author Fredric Wolinsky, a professor of public health at the
University of Iowa.
"It seems some remodelling of the brain is taking place, but we need to
figure out exactly which parts of the brain are undergoing functional
improvements," added Wolinsky, who has no financial stake in the video game used
in the research.
Wolinsky and his team split participants into four groups, further separating
them into sets of those 50 to 64 and those over 65. One group was given
computerised crossword puzzles and the three other groups repeatedly used the
Road Tour game.
The video game centers on quickly identifying a type of vehicle and matching
its symbol with the correct road sign among a circular array of possibilities.
The player must succeed three out of every four tries to advance to the next
level, which speeds up the process and adds more distractions.
Participants who played the video game scored significantly higher than those
in the crossword puzzle group on tests involving executive function such as
concentration, agile shifting from one mental task to another, and information
The mental improvement in the video game group ranged from 1.5 to nearly
seven years compared to those doing crossword puzzles, the investigators
Wolinsky noted that many other brain-training games are available
commercially, though few have scientific evidence to back up their cognitive
improvement claims. Road Tour forces users to widen their field of vision in
order to take in all the information required to succeed, he said.
"There's been considerable assumption that the visual field of view, the
amount of area we take in, declines with age," he said.
"For people to visualise the centre and periphery requires them to shift
their field of view to capture more information, and the training helps them be
more successful at doing that. It's a retrainable skill."
An expert not involved with the new study called it "interesting and
Dr James Galvin, director of the Pearl Barlow Center for Memory Evaluation
and Treatment at NYU Langone School of Medicine in New York City, said that the
study indicates that doctors should look more carefully at such brain-training
programmes to determine how they can be used clinically.
"It's really interesting to be able to demonstrate that these more
challenging kinds of tasks showed a significant benefit compared to crossword
puzzles," said Galvin, also a professor of neurology and psychiatry.
"The nature of the brain is that even later in life, we can still remodel it.
This suggests we have an opportunity to make a real impact on older adults in
terms of their mental ability."
The US National Institute on Aging has advice for healthy
(Photo of joystick from Shutterstock)