Brain Game Race – Has NeuroRacer Won?

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Does NeuroRacer work? Yes, under experimental conditions, “training the cognitive control abilities of older adults, with enhancements comparable to those observed in younger adults who are habitual action video-game players: interference resolution, working memory, and sustained attention”. More importantly, such abilities are transferable to other tasks, the researchers found.

Transfer is the key. It is the problem that I pointed to in my previous report on brain-enhancing video games. In the piece, I wrote about a research conducted on rats which indicated the cause of aging in older adults is the weakening of inhibitory nerve cells (neurons). These neurons normally dampen neighboring ones to allow others to concentrate on processing information that a person wants to focus on. This aging process was shown to be reversed in older rats that had been exposed to different musical tones, and were rewarded for making finer and finer discrimination.

With NeuroRacer, promising as it sounds, no research has been done on the organic causes on the cellular level, as in the case of the above example (admittedly not possible with human subjects, brain tissues being needed for analyses). The NeuroRacer experiment is based only on behavioral observations, using Electroencephalography (EEG), recording “an increase in midline frontal theta power” in the prefrontal cortex; and a decrease in general activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) of the participants who showed improved cognitive abilities. Its lead author, Adam Gazzaley * admits, “Follow up studies using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging and transcranial electrical stimulation are still needed to better understand exactly how this network is involved in the performance changes…”

Furthermore, we know that increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) is associated with creative processes (See my post on rappers). Its opposite, a decrease, would mean a rise in executive control, which may be the cause of enhanced cognitive focus achieved in NeuroRacer. Until we know the organic cause, any wide, unsupervised application of a drill-type computer game could risk uncertain, or worse, unintended results, especially in older adults.

Apart from the cellular experiment on rats I cited above, showing enhanced cognition with musical discrimination training, there are many experiments pointing to meditation and mindfulness resulting in increased ‘meta-cognition’. Meta-cognition means “not to focus one’s attention but rather to use one’s brain to monitor the universe of mental experience without directing attention to any one task”, as reported in Scientific American in 2009. Long term mediators like Buddhist monks show consistently greater sustained gamma waves as measured by EEG, probably due to increased spiking inter-neurons in the brain; and more mindfulness. Meta-cognition is, in short, a sort of universal awareness, a non-egoistic kind of wisdom.

As Gazzaley himself pointed out, “…[in older adults] the brain’s function often erodes steadily over time in many areas, with some exceptions, like wisdom”.

Wisdom – that sounds like something better for the oldster to build on, and more natural.

*   Gazzaley is co-founder and chief science adviser of Akili Interactive Labs, which is developing cognitive video game software as diagnostic and therapeutic tools, and has a patent pending on a game-based cognitive intervention he developed from the research presented in the paper.

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