Research suggests active gaming benefits brain health

Posted on 3rd May 2017

Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews: The effect of active video games on cognitive functioning in clinical and non-clinical populations: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials

Researchers from University of Manchester, King’s College London, KU Leuven and ETH Zurich have looked at studies of active video games, so called ‘exergames’, to see whether they benefit memory and thinking skills. The study was published online on 23 April 2017 in the journal Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews.

Exergames such as the Nintendo Wii and Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect have gained popularity over recent years, and a cross-European team of researchers set out to explore the links between exergames and potential benefits to the brain in terms of memory and thinking skills.

The researchers performed a literature search to identify studies in this area, identifying 2,839 studies and whittling them down to 17 that fit their eligibility criteria, in which a total of 926 people took part. Of these 17 studies, 10 involved healthy teenagers and adults, while the remaining seven studied people with clinically diagnosed conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease, early memory problems, schizophrenia and stroke. People in these studies were randomly assigned to either an exergame programme, or a control activity programme. The length of these programmes ranged from four to 24 weeks, but lasted on average 10 weeks, with an average of 3 sessions a week taking 15-60 minutes per session.

The team found that while there was variation in the findings of the 17 individual studies, overall the exergames appeared to benefit the participant’s memory and thinking skills. In five studies, exergames were compared with other physical activities, and in these, the benefits were more modest. The team also found that the exergames had the greatest benefits in the studies that continued the programme for more than 12 weeks. While the exergames overall had positive effects for memory and thinking, when the results of the different tests were looked at individually, benefits were only seen for certain tests of thinking, with no positive effect found for tests of visual and spatial learning and memory, or for working memory.

Dr Carol Routledge, Director of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:

“The benefits of exercise are well known, and physical activity can play an important role in keeping our brains healthy as we age. This research looked at previously published studies to explore whether active video games could benefit our brains, finding that these ‘exergames’ may have some positive effects. The results from the individual studies in this analysis are quite varied and without more high-quality research in this area, it is difficult to know how beneficial these games might be compared to other activities. Of the 17 studies that were included in this analysis only one looked at people with early memory problems, so it’s too early to tell from this study whether these games hold any particular benefit for people living with dementia.

“This study adds to the evidence showing that being physically active is important for brain health. It also highlights that being active isn’t necessarily restricted to traditional activities like spending hours in the gym. The study showed that the benefits of the exergames were strongest when people kept the activities going over longer periods. The key to maintaining an active lifestyle seems to be finding an activity you enjoy and can stick to, and this study suggests that exergames could play a part in keeping active. As well as keeping physically active, eating a healthy balanced diet, not smoking, only drinking in moderation, keeping blood pressure and cholesterol in check and maintaining a healthy weight are all ways we can look after our brains.”

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