Video games get a bad rap. But they're not all about turning you into a zombie — even if you do happen to be combating the zombie apocalypse — different kinds of games can help sharpen the mind in all kinds of unexpected ways. According to a new European study, playing "brain-training" videogames may help improve some cognitive abilities of people with multiple sclerosis (MS) by strengthening neural connections in an important part of their brains, according to a new study published online in the journal Radiology.
According to the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation, MS currently affects around 2.5 million people worldwide. The disease attacks the central nervous system and damages the protective covering of nerve fibers. Symptoms can include weakness, muscle stiffness and difficulty thinking — a phenomenon often referred to as "brain fog." Damage to the thalamus — the brain's "information hub" — and its connection to other parts of the brain lead to this cognitive dysfunction in many MS patients.
A team of researchers led by Dr. Laura De Giglio, from Sapienza University in Rome, decided to look at way in which a videogame-based rehabilitation program effects the thalamus in patients with MS. They used a collection of Nintendo games called Dr. Kawashima's Brain Training, which train the brain using puzzles, word memory and other mental challenges.
The team looked at 24 patients with cognitive impairment and randomly assigned to one of two groups. The first group took part in an eight-week rehabilitation program at home that consisted of 30-minute gaming sessions, five days per week. The second group were put on a "wait list," to serve as the control group. The team analyzed the results of cognitive tests and functional MRI (fMRI) scans — which measure brain activity — before and after the test period.
Functional imaging when the brain is in its resting state, or not focused on a particular task, provides important information on neural connectivity, the team say. "Functional MRI allows you to study which brain areas are simultaneously active and gives information on the participation of certain areas with specific brain circuits," says De Giglio. "When we talk about increased connectivity, we mean that these circuits have been modified, increasing the extension of areas that work simultaneously."
It was discovered at follow-up checks that the patients in the videogame group had significant increases in the functional connectivity of the thalamus in one of the most important brain networks involved in cognition. The scientists say their results provide an example of the brain's "plasticity" — the ability to form new connections throughout life.
"This increased connectivity reflects the fact that video-gaming experience changed the mode of operation of certain brain structures," says De Giglio. "This means that even a widespread and common use tool like video games can promote brain plasticity and can aid in cognitive rehabilitation for people with neurological diseases, such as multiple sclerosis."
The changes in brain connectivity seen in participants after they had completed the eight-week course correlated with significant improvements in test scores relating to the higher-level cognitive skills that help organize our lives and regulate our behavior — sustained attention and executive function.
We've already seen the way in which videogames help brain function and how a little fun on the Wii Fit can tackle Type 2 diabetes. Now, the researchers believe, videogame-based brain training can improve cognitive abilities of patients with MS. The team hopes to further study whether the changes brought about in MS patients in this way also mean improvements in other aspects of their daily lives and how such game can be integrated into a rehabilitation program with other therapeutic techniques.