For study volunteer Ann Linsley, a computer generated roadway on the screen in front of her could be called memory lane. It is part of a 3D video game designed to test and potentially improve the cognitive brain function in older adults.
"I was interested in finding out if there was some way I could contribute to finding out why my brain doesn't work like it used to," she says.
The game called NeuroRacer was developed by Professor Adam Gazzaley, MD, Ph.D. and his team at UCSF It requires drivers to pay attention to certain pop-up road signs, but ignore others, essentially forcing the brain into a state of multitasking.
"Our ability to multitask and to deal with distraction and working memory decline as we get older," observes Dr. Gazzaley. "So we were really looking at boosting a skill that naturally seems to decline with age."
To accomplish that, they asked healthy volunteers between the ages of 60 and 85 to undergo training, and then drive the course at regular intervals over a month's time. He says the initial improvement was dramatic.
"What we showed with the game play itself, was that the multi-tasking ability of these older adults, 60 to 80 year olds, improved to the level of 20-year-olds after just a month of game play."
In addition to logging outcomes, the team also recorded the subjects' brain waves, concentrating on neural pathways involved in cognitive function. As the older drivers became more proficient, their brain activity began to resemble the patterns seen in young adults, providing evidence that older brains are re-trainable.
"We showed with the brain recording that they had this robust plasticity in activity from the front part of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex," say Dr. Gazzaley.
In one unexpected result, he says the cognitive improvement also extended to skills not directly challenged by the game; including working memory, or the ability to hold information to complete short term tasks. That was measured on a separate test. Ann described it as a feeling of heightened concentration.
"That's what I call the zone, where you're just there, and you're just focused completely on the car and those signs," she explained.
The team now hopes to use even more advanced brain imaging to help understand how neural pathways are physically changed by the stimulation, potentially exploring the effectiveness of the games in treating brain disorders such as Alzheimer's and ADHD.
Professor Gazzaley is now working on a commercial version of the game that could be used both as a diagnostic and therapeutic tool.
written and produced by Tim Didion