3-D games may help aging seniors maintain cognitive abilities

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By playing three-dimensional video games, seniors can boost the formation of memories, according to neurobiologists at the University of California in Irvine. 

In addition to improving eye-hand coordination and reaction time, these games also may help people who lose memory as they age or suffer from dementia. Full findings appear Dec. 9 in The Journal of Neuroscience.

For their work, Craig Stark, Ph.D., and Dane Clemenson, Ph.D., of UCI's Center for the Neurobiology of Learning & Memory recruited non-gamers to play either a video game with a passive, two-dimensional environment (“Angry Birds”) or one with an intricate, 3-D setting (“Super Mario 3D World”). Participants played the games for 30 minutes each day over two weeks.

Before and after the two-week period, players took memory tests that engaged the brain's hippocampus, the region associated with complex learning and memory. They were given a series of pictures of everyday objects to study. Then, they were shown images of the same objects, new ones and others that differed slightly from the original items and asked to categorize them. Recognition of the slightly altered images requires the hippocampus, Stark said, and his earlier research had demonstrated that the ability to do this clearly declines with age. This is a large part of why it's so difficult to learn new names or remember where you put your keys as you get older.

Those playing the 3-D video game improved their scores on the memory test, whereas the 2-D gamers did not. The boost was not small, either. Memory performance increased by about 12%, the same amount it normally decreases between the ages of 45 and 70.

“The 3-D games have a few things the 2-D ones do not,” Stark said. “They've got a lot more spatial information in there to explore. They're also much more complex, with a lot more information to learn. Either way, we know this kind of learning and memory not only stimulates but requires the hippocampus.”

He said the games might improve hippocampus functioning.

“It's often suggested that an active, engaged lifestyle can be a real factor in stemming cognitive aging. While we can't all travel the world on vacation, we can do many other things to keep us cognitively engaged and active. Video games may be a nice, viable route,” he added. A related video can be found here.

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