Exercise for the brain: 3D video games are a good mental workout for older adults wanting to stay cognitively limber

Playing video games might be considered by some as merely a fun, time-wasting activity to be done at one’s leisure, but there is a growing body of evidence that shows it can improve a person’s overall mental health and well-being. There have been numerous studies that looked into the effects of playing video games on the brains of children and young adults, and the results have consistently shown that there are indeed tremendous benefits.

Now, a new study from Canadian researchers gives some insight into the effects of playing video games for older adults. To be more specific, the researchers tried to find out if playing modern video games, mainly 3D platform games such as Super Mario 64, would have a positive effect on the brains of seniors aged 55 to 75 years old. The results of their study showed that, yes, playing video games offers mental health benefits, and it ties in nicely with what is previously known.

Details of the research

Researchers from the Université de Montréal recruited 33 people for their study and grouped them into three. The first group was tasked with playing Super Mario 64 for 30 minutes a day, while the second group was told to take piano lessons — for the first time in their lives — which also lasted 30 minutes a day. The third group was told to do nothing but stay at home and report along with the other two groups once their assignments were finished. The study was conducted at the participants’ homes, where the researchers installed the gaming consoles and pianos used for the lessons, over a period of six months.

Using two different ways of measurement done at the beginning and the end of the exercises — cognitive performance tests and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) — the researchers were able to find variations in the volume of grey matter in the brains of the participants. They managed to isolate and observe brain activity in three main areas, namely the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the cerebellum, and the hippocampus.

The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that takes care of planning, inhibition, and individual decision-making. The cerebellum, meanwhile, is involved in motor control skills and balance. Finally, the hippocampus is known as the center of spatial and episodic memory in the brain, which makes it an essential part of the brain.

According to the research results, the group that played video games had an increase in grey matter volume in both the cerebellum and the hippocampus in their brains. They also showed improvements in short-term memory. The group that took the piano lessons also showed increases in grey matter, specifically in their dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and cerebellum areas of the brain. And only the third group, which did nothing throughout the study, failed to show any improvement and in fact, showed signs of atrophy in all the three areas being tracked by the researchers. (Related: Video games really do alter the brain function of our youth.)

Implications of the study

The findings of the researchers have significant consequences for the study of the brain, especially in older adults. They have shown that playing video games can be useful for the brain no matter the age and that it’s possible to enjoy the mental health benefits of playing them whether you start playing in your younger years or only get into playing during your older adult years.

In any case, the researchers are now looking to use their findings for future research on diseases such as Alzheimer’s, which is known to be linked with the state of a patient’s hippocampus. At the very least, they have shown that the brain can still be trained and exercised regardless of your age and that it can be done with something as simple as playing 3D video games.

Read more about brain research at Brain.news.

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