Can video games push the pause button on Alzheimer's symptoms?

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Kia Crawford
Kia Crawford

Researchers are using video games to treat symptoms of degenerative brain conditions such as Alzheimer's disease. Video games may be helpful in diagnosing such conditions, too.

A study published in the journal Nature in 2013 noted the positive benefits that playing certain video games could have for those who have Alzheimer's and dementia. The game NeuroRacer specifically was developed to test this hypothesis, and the older-adult study participants who played it saw improved short-term memory and cognitive multitasking skills compared with members of a control group. Study participants who kept playing the game also became better at it than members of a control group of 20-year-olds who played it once.

This study and other new developments have come to light highlighting the potential for video games to power up our cognition in spite of degenerative brain conditions. Older adults who have Alzheimer's and similar diseases could acquire an extra defense against memory loss, confusion and multi-tasking difficulty as a result. So game on, Grandma.

Racing and raiding for better mental health

Back to NeuroRacer. The University of California, San Francisco, published the aforementioned study, “Video game training enhances cognitive control in older adults,” as a joint effort between its neurology, physiology and psychiatry departments as well as its Center for Integrative Neuroscience.

Their methods involved having the subjects play NeuroRacer three days a week for one hour periods over the course of a month, equalling 12 hours of total play time. NeuroRacer demanded two separate tasks. One required the player to steer a car driving along at a set speed down a twisty road, and the other requested the player to press a certain button the moment he or she saw an in-game road sign with a certain symbol appear.

Participants who were required to perform both tasks at once had the most noticeable improvements in multi-tasking tests involving real-life tasks. The most skilled participants also demonstrated better recall of information, such as names, phone numbers, dates and more. Most surprisingly, these positive effects lasted six months after the initial play sessions.

A similar study published in Computers in Human Behavior found that older adults who played the popular online game World of Warcraft showed marked improvements in attention control, spatial orientation and mental capacity compared with members of the study group who did not play the game.

Video games as a diagnosis tool

Moving beyond treatment of symptoms of dementia, scientists also hope to use video games to diagnose conditions during early stages of onset. A team of neuroscientists from University College London and other universities has developed a game called Sea Hero Quest in hopes of establishing benchmarks for spatial navigation among both young and older adults. Because spatial navigation is one of the first skills lost during the onset of dementia, the game potentially could become a tool for helping physicians diagnose or assess degenerative brain conditions before they progress.

Efforts such as these ones are crucial steps for diagnosing and treating conditions such as Alzheimer's, and they also allow older adults to have fun in the process. The World Alzheimer Report 2015 indicated that more than 46 million people live with dementia worldwide. Scientists and doctors who are able to improve the lives of people with dementia are doing great things for these people, even if they don't unlock an achievement that tells them so.

Kia Crawford has eight years of experience in the senior living industry, including positions with both Trinity and Sunrise Senior Living. Sheh has worked within operations as well as sales and marketing. Currently, Crawford is corporate communications director for Trinity Lifestyles Management, a position in which she handles Trinity's internal and external communications, copy and content writing, and digital and social media strategies. She also is responsible for special corporate events and corporate volunteer and philanthropic initiatives. Crawford earned an master of public administration degree from Central Michigan University. She earned her undergraduate degree in journalism, with an emphasis in public relations, from Florida A&M University.

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