NEW YORK — It probably won't become as popular as "Grand Theft Auto," but a specialized video game may help older people boost mental skills like handling multiple tasks at once.
In a preliminary study, healthy volunteers ages 60 to 85 showed gains in their ability to multitask, to stay focused on a boring activity and to keep information in mind — the kind of memory you use to remember a phone number long enough to write it down.
All those powers normally decline with age, Dr. Adam Gazzaley of the University of California, San Francisco, and colleagues noted in a study released Wednesday by the journal Nature.
The study was small, with only 16 volunteers training on the specially designed game. Gazzaley and other brain experts said bigger studies were needed to assess whether the game could actually help people function in their everyday lives. He's co-founder of a company that aims to develop a product from the research.
Specialized video games might one day be able to boost mental abilities not only for healthy adults of middle age or older, but also children with attention deficit disorder, people with post-traumatic stress disorder or brain injury and older adults with depression or dementia, he said in an interview.
The work is the latest indication that people can help preserve their brainpower as they age through mental activity. There are "brain training" games on the market and books devoted to the topic. Gazzaley stressed that claims should be backed up by evidence, and also that his results don't mean any commercial video game can help mental performance. His game was designed to exercise specific abilities, he said.
The game, called NeuroRacer, involves doing two things simultaneously. A player uses a joystick to guide a car along a hilly, twisting road, steering it and controlling its speed. At the same time, a series of signs — actually colored shapes — appears on the screen. The player is supposed to push a button only when a particular kind of sign appears. Players were scored on how quickly and accurately they reacted to the right signs.
The game progresses to harder levels as a player improves, to keep it challenging.
"You really had to focus," said one study participant, Ann Linsley, 65, of Berkeley, Calif. "I went through 22 levels. By the end, we were really cooking along."
In a separate experiment with 174 volunteers between the ages of 20 and 79, the researchers found that as people age, driving the car interferes more and more with performance on reacting to the signs.
But for 14 of the 16 participants who played the game at home for a total of 12 hours over a month, the training decreased the amount of interference. In fact, on this measure they did better than a group of 20-year-olds who played the game for the first time.
The improvements were still apparent six months after the training stopped.
Researchers also found changes in brain wave activity that correlated with how well the improvement persisted at six months, as well as performance on a test of sustained attention for a boring task.
Brain experts unconnected with the study said previous research has shown that older people can improve on mental skills such as multitasking if they are trained. But the training in past multitasking studies was "boring as all get-go," said Elizabeth Zelinski, a professor of gerontology and psychology at the University of Southern California. Presenting an appealing game like NeuroRacer instead could help people stick with it, she said.
Linsley certainly enjoyed the game. "I looked forward to doing it," she said. When she had to give the laptop with the game back to the researchers, "I kind of missed it."
Art Kramer, a neuroscientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, called the work a promising first step toward a possible therapy. Scientists still have to demonstrate the results will hold up with larger groups of test subjects, he said.
Online: Journal Nature: http://www.nature.com/nature