Computerized brain training is more powerful than crossword puzzles to optimize brain functions. A new study showed that 10h of playing a game that trains one’s thinking speed successfully improved players’ performance in many tasks, while crossword puzzles had no effect.
The 681 participants in the study were either between 50 and 64 years old or over 65. Within each group, half of the participants played the training game for 10h (either on site or at home), ¼ got an extra 4h booster session on site, and ¼ worked on computerized crossword puzzles for 10h on site. Participants’ cognitive abilities were assessed before the study began as well as one year later, using eight standardized tests.
The training game, called “Road Tour”, was originally developed by researchers but is now sold by Posit Science (note that Posit Science did not fund the study). It involves identifying a type of vehicle shown briefly and then match it with a road sign displayed from a circular array of possible choices, all but one of them distractors. The speed of identification and the number of distractors increase as the player’s performance increases.
This type of game trains the player’s speed of processing and has been shown in previous studies to increase the player’s useful field of view (or UFOV), that is the visual area over which information can be extracted at a brief glance without eye or head movements.
All participants who played the game showed benefits when tested a year later both in a test directly assessing their UFOV but also in 4 other standard tests assessing speed of processing and executive functions (such as the ability to switch between tasks and ignore distractions).
The researchers developed a formula to translate the results into “years” of cognitive protection against age-related cognitive decline (this amounts to comparing the participants’ scores to those expected for people of the same age). Using this formula, the training translated into 3-4 years of protection for the UFOV test and from 1.5-6.6 years for the other tasks.
Why is this study interesting?
1. It shows that only a few hours of brain training can have a long lasting effect on the brain, once again demonstrating the power of neuroplasticity. The brain does change according to one’s experiences, showing gains in synapses and thus in functions.
2. The training benefits were observed in the trained task (UFOV) but also generalized to different tasks, suggesting that these benefits were beyond mere practice effects and could translate into actual everyday life benefits.
3. Only the training game’s difficulty (and not the crossword puzzles’) adapted to the players’ progress, providing them with an increasing challenge. This shows that a good brain workout has to be challenging enough to trigger beneficial changes in the brain.
References: Wolinsky et al. (2013). A Randomized Controlled Trial of Cognitive Training Using a Visual Speed of Processing Intervention in Middle Aged and Older Adults. PLoS ONE 8(5): e61624. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0061624
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