Give Nan a Nintendo to keep her brain sharp, researcher says

Research done by Dr. Benjamin Zendel at MUN and a colleague in Montreal found that video games can help seniors stay mentally sharp, and even increase grey matter.

Teaching seniors to use video games helps increase their brain matter and visual skills, study finds

Benjamin Zendel's research on the impact of teaching seniors to play musical instruments paired with similar research from Université de Montréal focused on video games. (Brian McHugh/CBC)

Teach Nan how to play Fortnite? New research done by Memorial University and Université de Montréal suggests that might actually be a good idea.

Dr. Benjamin Zendel, Canada Research Chair in Aging and Auditory Neuroscience, was part of a study that found that regularly playing video games can improve cognitive functions in seniors. 

The study participants, who were all aged 60 and older, were taught to play Super Mario 64 and spent 30 minutes a day, five days a week with the game. Six months later, the gaming grannies and grandpas had increased their brain's grey matter and improved their short-term memories.

"In this case, the video game group had better working memory — related to enhancements in grey matter structure in the hippocampus, which is the brain structure related to working memory — and were better able to ignore distracting visual information," Zendel told CBC's On The Go.

"And again, brain structures related to how the eyes move also were enhanced in that group selectively. Not in the music group and not in the control group that did nothing."

Original focus was musical training

The study was originally meant to measure the benefits of musical training for seniors, Zendel said, not video games.

"The study was initially actually designed to test the effectiveness of musical training on hearing abilities," he said. The researchers needed a placebo group of sorts, in addition to a group of seniors who did nothing different over the six months, and found Gregory West at Université de Montréal, where he was doing research on video game training and cognitive benefits.

Learning to use an unfamiliar video game system like the Nintendo Wii, seen here, can have cognitive benefits for seniors, the research found. (Darren Calabrese, Canadian Press)

"So we thought, well, maybe video games might be a nice analog to music," Zendel said. 

"They're engaging, they require hands, they don't really require a hearing system very much but they do require a visual system."

Before and after the study's training period, the participants' brain structure, working memory and eye movements were measured. The three groups — video games, musical training and nothing — were then compared through the results of MRIs and cognitive performance testing on the participants.

If all three groups showed a change, he said, the researchers could assume they simply got better at taking the tests. But if one group stood out, the intervention — either video games or musical training — could be a factor.

West thought video games might help improve visual processing in seniors, Zendel said, and he was right.

'Use it or lose it'

Video games provide that benefit because of their design, Zendel said, which requires navigating a 3D environment and using spatial and visual skills.

"I think it sort of goes back to the old idea of use it or lose it," he said.

The key really lies in doing something new, he said, which requires engaging in a new way and learning new things.

"Whenever you learn something new, the brain has to change in some way to support that learning."

If you throw in a free lesson on Fortnite dances, maybe your grandparents can get physical benefits from the popular video game as well as cognitive ones. (YouTube)

For the seniors, video games were largely new — they didn't grow up playing them. It was actually harder to find participants for the music group, Zendel said, because many people of that age had taken musical lessons at some point in their lives. And West's research on younger people who are unfamiliar with video games showed similar benefits through training, he said.

The benefits the seniors gained from video games don't help them only when playing Super Mario 64.

'The people didn't just get better at playing the video game," Zendel said. 

"They seemed to get better at these lower-level cognitive tasks that might transfer to real-world situations, like remembering phone numbers, or driving and ignoring certain things, or paying attention to certain things, while you're driving a car."

Whenever you learn something new, the brain has to change in some way to support that learning.- Dr. Benjamin Zendel

Both Zendel and West are continuing their research in musical training and video game training respectively. Zendel is now focusing on which specific aspects of musical training are beneficial, with the goal of transforming that training into a form of auditory rehabilitation — not only for seniors but also potentially for people who have auditory processing difficulties or who are learning to use a cochlear implant. 

'It's a way of creating sort of individualized medicine."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from On The Go