When it comes to their neurological and psychological effects, computer games stir a heated debate. Some studies have indicated a connection between violent games and aggression, but studies are often inconsistent, and just as many studies point to the contrary. Even more interestingly, recent research has shown that gaming can lead to an improvement in cognition. Now, a new study by University of Montreal researchers found that participants who played 3D platforming games, like the iconic Super Mario 64, had more grey matter in their hippocampus after playing. The findings carried on for participants of all ages.
Previous studies have shown similar results, but only for young males in their 20s -- the key demographic for computer games, but not truly representative for the entire population. Now, they carried out similar studies for seniors. The team recruited 33 people aged 55 to 75 and split them into three groups: one of them had to play Super Mario 64 regularly, take the second took piano lessons for the first time, and the third did nothing.
The piano lessons group and the control group had no increase in their grey matter -- but the Super Mario 64 group did. Lead researcher Gregory West says that games like the Super Mario force participants to build a cognitive map of the virtual environment, which stimulates the hippocampus. This also helps reverse the atrophy of grey matter which tends to come with old age.
“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,” West said in a statement. “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.”
Grey matter in the hippocampus is vital for the central nervous system, and in the hippocampus particularly, it contributes to the transformation of short-term memories into long-term memories and to spatial orientation. Grey matter in the hippocampus is also a significant biomarker for neurological and psychiatric disorders including Alzheimer's.
It was also previously shown that London Taxi drivers displayed more grey matter in the posterior hippocampus than a matched control group.
While we should always this type of study with a grain of salt, results are encouraging. It shows that you're never too old for gaming, and at least for the hippocampus -- it's better for you than taking piano lessons.
Journal Reference: Greg L. West et al. Playing Super Mario 64 increases hippocampal grey matter in older adults. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0187779