Elderly patients increase gray matter after playing Super Mario

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Elderly patients who played 3D-platform games such as Nintendo's Super Mario 64 saw improvements in short-term memory and an increase in gray matter in the brain, according to a study published in PLOS ONE.

Playing video games may seem like an activity for younger generations, but it has shown to increase the gray matter in the hippocampus, the region of the brain responsible for memory. In this study, researchers took the games to older users to test their effects on the gray matter.

"3D video games engage the hippocampus into creating a cognitive map, or a mental representation, of the virtual environment that the brain is exploring," said first author Gregory West, associate professor of psychology at Canada's Université de Montréal. "Several studies suggest stimulation of the hippocampus increases both functional activity and gray matter within this region."

The study enrolled 33 participants, from 55 to 75 years old, and assigned them to one of three groups. The first group played Super Mario 64 for 30 minutes a day, five days a week, while the second group took piano lessons for the same amount of time. The third group, the control group, did not perform any tasks. The game and lessons took place in the patient’s home for a span of six months. Measurements on the brain were collected before and after the intervention with cognitive performance tests and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Results showed participants who had played games saw the only increase in gray matter in the hippocampus and cerebellum. Additionally, their short-term memory improved. The group that took piano lessons saw increases in the gray matter in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and cerebellum. The control group experienced atrophy in these brain regions.

"The good news is that we can reverse those effects and increase volume by learning something new, and games like Super Mario 64, which activate the hippocampus, seem to hold some potential in that respect," said West. “It remains to be seen whether it is specifically brain activity associated with spatial memory that affects plasticity, or whether it's simply a matter of learning something new."