Playing video games in childhood improves working memory years later

By Chrissy Sexton

Playing video games as a child leads to long-lasting cognitive benefits, according to new research from the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC). The study suggests that gaming improves working memory and concentration.

Previous studies have shown that gaming improves attention, enhances visual-spatial skills, and causes structural changes in the brain – even increasing the size of some regions. The current study is the first to show that video games promote positive cognitive changes that can take place years after people stop playing them.

“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 study lead author Dr. Marc Palaus.

The research was focused on 27 people between the ages of 18 and 40 with and without any kind of video gaming experience.

The experts analyzed cognitive skills, including working memory, at three points during the study period: before training the volunteers to play Nintendo’s Super Mario 64, at the end of the training, and fifteen days later.

The findings revealed that participants who had not played video games in childhood did not benefit from improvements in processing and inhibiting irrelevant stimuli. As expected, these individuals were initially slower than those who had played games as children.

“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,” said Dr. Palaus.

The experts also performed 10 sessions of a non-invasive brain stimulation known as transcranial magnetic stimulation on the individuals.

“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,” explained Palaus.

The researchers theorized that combining video gaming with this type of stimulation could improve cognitive performance, but that was not the case.

“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.”

The game used in the study had a 3D platform, but there are many types of video games that can influence cognitive functions. According to Dr. Palaus, what most video games have in common 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,” said Dr. Palaus. “Video games are a perfect recipe for strengthening our cognitive skills, almost without our noticing.”

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

Playing video games in childhood improves working memory years later

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