Oct. 4 - Researchers in California are developing video games aimed at helping older people preserve their cognitive abilities as they age. The games are designed to improve communication between different parts of the brain, boosting memory function and the ability to stay focused. Ben Gruber reports.
Ann Linsley was never a big fan of technology, she didn't like computers and video games were definitely out of the question.. (SOUNDBITE) (English) ANN LINSLEY, 65, TRIAL PARTICIPANT, SAYING: "My grandson tried to teach to teach me one once and I was still on ground zero with him (laughs). He didn't think I was teachable." But today, Ann is learning all about video games. A few years ago, Ann began to notice that she'd lost some of her mental sharpness - she was forgetting things and losing focus easily. These changes scared her. (SOUNDBITE) (English) ANN LINSLEY, 65, TRIAL PARTICIPANT, SAYING: "I always prided myself on the ability to remember the smallest of facts and put things together and be able to do all of that and that was kind of going away. I think partially because I wasn't using it every day but I was talking to my friends and we were all having the same kind of things." According to Adam Gazzaley, a professor of neuroscience at UCSF, Ann and her friends were experiencing symptoms commonly associated with an ageing brain. (SOUNDBITE) (English) ADAM GAZZALEY, PROFESSOR OF NEUROSCIENCE, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA SAN FRANCISCO, SAYING: "We are still teasing apart what is going on to actually cause it, but we know that it seems to be a breakdown with how the front part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, which is kind of the command centre in charge of cognitive control in a lot of ways, that its ability to communicate with the rest of the brain seems to be less efficient." But Gazzaley says the decline might be reversible - with video games. Inspired by studies describing cognitive improvements in children who've been exposed to immersive video games, he developed a driving game designed to stimulate the brain's ability to multi-task. The player needs to keep the car in the middle of the road while simultaneously clicking whenever a sign appears. Gazzaley says that as older volunteers played the game, their mental dexterity improved...a lot. (SOUNDBITE) (English) ADAM GAZZALEY, PROFESSOR OF NEUROSCIENCE, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA SAN FRANCISCO, SAYING: "While they played the game in lab both before and after we recorded their brain activity with EEG which looks at electrical activity in the brain and what we find that right when a sign comes up while you are driving there is this burst of activity from the front part of the brain, from the prefrontal cortex which is greater in younger adults than in older adults before they train but after they train they improve this brain activity measure to young adult levels." ..And that improvement could translate into an increased ability to retain memory and stay focused, although Gazzaley says it will take more research to prove it. For Ann Linsley that research can't come soon enough…even though she says she still doesn't like computers. (SOUNDBITE) (English) ANN LINSLEY, 65, TRIAL PARTICIPANT, SAYING: "I think technology is a double edged sword, obviously. But if it could be for good and it can help us, because we do talk about it in my age group. We're sitting there going 'ok did you put the bread in the freezer today or did you put it in the oven or did you put it where it belongs. And that is something that can hopefully help us. And we are going to demand it actually, it's not just a hope, it s a demand. Something has got to come to help us." Adam Gazzaley and his team plan to do just that. They are in the process of preparing broader studies aimed at designing new games for baby boomers like Ann. He says that keeping a sharp mind when you're old may be as simple as playing a game.