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Playing video games as a child can improve working memory years later

Image credit: Jovanmandic/Dreamstime

Researchers have demonstrated how cognitive changes in the brain can take place even years after people stop playing video games.

A number of studies have shown how playing video games can lead to structural changes in the brain, including increasing the size of some regions, or to functional changes, such as activating the areas responsible for attention or visual-spatial skills. But new research from the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) in Barcelona, Spain, has gone further to show how cognitive changes can be found even years after people stop playing. 

“People who were avid gamers before adolescence, despite no longer playing, performed better with the working memory tasks, which require mentally holding and manipulating information to get a result,” said Marc Palaus, who has a PhD from UOC.

The study involved 27 people between the ages of 18 and 40 with and without any kind of experience of video gaming. Here, the results showed that people without experience of playing video games as a child did not benefit from improvements in processing and inhibiting irrelevant stimuli, and were slower than those who had played games as children, which matched what had been seen in earlier studies.

Likewise, people who played regularly as children performed better from the outset in processing 3D objects, although these differences were mitigated after the period of training in video gaming when both groups showed similar levels”, Palaus explained.

The study lasted a month whereby the researchers analysed the participants’ cognitive skills, including working memory, at three points: before starting the training in video gaming, at the end of the training, and 15 days later.

The study also included 10 sessions of transcranial magnetic stimulation. This is non-invasive brain stimulation through the skin without the need to get to the brain tissue that temporarily changes the brain’s activity.

“It uses magnetic waves, which, when applied to the surface of the skull, are able to produce electrical currents in underlying neural populations and modify their activity,” Palaus explained.

The researchers also wanted to find out if combining video gaming and this kind of stimulation would improve cognitive performance but this was proven to be unsuccessful. There are a number of possible causes for this, the team said, including the experimental nature of the parameters for the stimulation.

“We aimed to achieve lasting changes. Under normal circumstances, the effects of this stimulation can last from milliseconds to tens of minutes. We wanted to achieve improved performance of certain brain functions that lasted longer than this,” Palaus said.

In this instance, the video game used was 3D platform adventure game 'Super Mario 64' developed by Japanese company Nintendo, but there are many genres of video game which can influence cognitive functions differently.

What most have in common, Palaus said, is that they involve elements that make people want to continue playing, and that they gradually get harder and present a constant challenge. “These two things are enough to make it an attractive and motivating activity, which, in turn, requires constant and intense use of our brain’s resources. 

“Video games are a perfect recipe for strengthening our cognitive skills, almost without our noticing,” he added, but stressed that these improvements only have a limited effect on the performance of other activities not linked to video gaming, as is the case with most cognitive training.

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