At age 70, Allan Smith* is not a gamer, but when his time comes to play Space Fortress for a Columbia study on the aging brain, he eagerly takes his seat in front of a computer monitor, grabs the joystick, and starts shooting missiles at the enemy fortress on the screen.
Despite the video game’s simple graphics – it looks like Asteroids, circa 1984 –Allan must do more than shoot indiscriminately at his targets to rack up points.
“It’s a frustrating and complex game,” says the cognitive neuroscientist running the study, Yaakov Stern, PhD, professor of clinical neuropsychology at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons (in neurology, psychiatry, psychology, the Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer’s Disease and the Aging Brain, and the Gertrude H. Sergievsky Center at Columbia University Medical Center).
Getting a good score requires close attention to multiple small details. Allan can only destroy the fortress during a short window of time with two quick shots fired within 250 milliseconds of each other. If he fires the second shot 251 milliseconds after the first, his opportunity is lost. At the same time, mines drift around threatening his ship, although some are actually “friendly.” Destroying a friendly mine costs him points, but telling mines apart requires decoding a message that flashes onto the bottom of the screen.
Allan is in his fifth session with the game and he doesn’t have total control over his ship. “I know what I have to do, but getting that information down into my arm to move the spaceship is slow,” he says. Still, it’s fun, and Allan travels to Columbia’s Taub Institute three days a week to play the game for 45 minutes at a time.
Stern hopes that playing Space Fortress will give people in their 60s and 70s, like Allan, more lasting benefits than a few hours of fun. Dr. Stern’s idea is that the game may be able to slow down the effects of age on memory, critical thinking, and other cognitive functions.
That idea is already entrenched in popular culture as the “use it or lose it” philosophy. Magazines, newspapers, and television shows advise people to learn a new language or play Sudoku to fend off the effects of aging on the mind. Brain-boosting board games, software, and puzzles can be purchased in stores dedicated to brain fitness, and sales are projected to reach billions of dollars this decade, fueled by a rapidly aging society.
But to most researchers in the field of cognitive neuroscience, it’s not yet clear that these activities actually help.
“I think most scientists are convinced that it’s possible to change the brain to improve cognitive functions, but the research is not that encouraging yet,” says Dr. Stern.
There’s no doubt that age diminishes many of the brain’s cognitive functions. Things like memory, processing speed, and reasoning ability peak around age 20 and then start to decline.
Greater experience and accumulated knowledge counteracts the decline through middle age, and deficits don’t become noticeable until later life, when people start complaining about losing their keys or calling their children by their pets’ names.
Families joke about these “senior moments,” but forgetting when the mortgage was paid, what pill was just swallowed, or failing to notice a turning car at an intersection can affect whether a person can live independently.
“If we can find a brain exercise or intervention that improves day-to-day function in elders, that will have an enormous impact on people’s lives, their families’ lives, and the amount of money society spends taking care of people who can’t take care of themselves,” Dr. Stern says.
Researchers may not yet know a way to boost brainpower, but lots of indirect evidence suggests that mental exercise should slow the rate of cognitive aging, Dr. Stern says. Studies have found that people with better cognitive agility in old age were often better educated or had intellectually demanding jobs. And studies with animals in which mice navigate complex environments show that workouts for the brain slow cognitive aging.
But in people, only minor improvements are found after brain exercise, and the gains are limited to the specific exercise. “If you’re trained to memorize names, you’ll get a little better at remembering names,” Dr. Stern says, “but that doesn’t translate to remembering to pay the bills or the ability to hold a conversation.”
The challenge for researchers is to find something that can have a real impact on people’s daily activities, and Dr. Stern thinks a combination of Space Fortress and physical exercise may lead to meaningful improvement.
Space Fortress was specifically designed by researchers to improve the brain’s “executive functions,” so named because they resemble the skills needed to run a business: processing information, planning, dealing with uncertainty and distractions, and multi-tasking.
Executive functions take a hit in aging but they are essential for independent living, Dr. Stern says. “You can’t drive a car without executive functions, or pay your bills, or walk and have a conversation at the same time. The decay in executive function is one of the most prominent changes in aging, and because of its impact on daily activities, it may be one of the most important.”
The game is already a proven brain booster in young adults: in a study of young Israeli air force recruits, those who learned Space Fortress before flight training proved to be more skilled when they got behind the controls of a simulator.
For people between 65 and 75, Stern has found that players improve their scores on executive functions tests, but only by a modest amount.
The current study tests whether aerobic exercise can increase that gain.
“Several studies show that aerobic exercise improves performance on tests of executive function, so the two together may act synergistically,” Dr. Stern says.
“It could be that mental exercise without physical exercise is like taking steroids but not lifting weights. You won’t develop any muscles.”
*not his real name
Published April 30, 2010