November 16, 2005
Science Magazine
Greg Miller

Granny may not have the much-coveted Xbox 360 game console on her Christmas list this year, but if a California company founded by neuroscientists has its way, computer games may soon become must-have items for seniors. Preliminary results presented here 14 November at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience suggest that a game developed by the company can improve the memory and attention of elderly people.

The game, called HiFi, may lack the excitement of Grand Theft Auto, but it’s designed to boost the function of the aging brain, says neuroscientist Henry Mahncke, vice president of research and outcomes for Posit Science, based in San Francisco, California. HiFi doesn’t have a plot, per se, but offers several cartoon like scenarios based on senior-friendly themes, including family and travel. In one part of HiFi, players collect photos of famous sites such as the Eiffel Tower by making increasingly difficult discriminations between whistling sounds that increase or decrease in frequency. The idea is to exercise and strengthen the neural circuits that process the acoustic building blocks of speech, Mahncke says. Older people often experience a decline in speech processing that can contribute to other types of problems, explains Paula Tallal, a cognitive neuroscientist at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, and a member of Posit Science’s scientific advisory board (though not an author on the current study).

In a randomized trial of 95 healthy older adults with an average age of 80, those who played HiFi for an hour a day for 8 weeks improved their scores on a standardized test of memory and attention by an average of 5.5 points. A similar group who used a computer for an hour a day to watch a lecture improved about 2 points, no better than a third group who made no change to their daily activities. The seniors in the HiFi group performed like people ten years younger typically would, Mahncke says.

But not everyone is convinced the improvement is all that dramatic. Dwight Dickinson, a neuropsychologist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore who uses computer training programs in his work with schizophrenia patients, suspects that the cognitive improvements reported so far aren’t big enough to make much difference in people’s day to day life. It’s analogous to getting a few extra IQ points, Dickinson says: “You might not notice.” Though he thinks the idea is worth pursuing, Dickinson is skeptical that computer training programs will undo time’s inexorable toll on the brain. “You may be able to make changes around the edges, but you’re not going to turn a 75 year old back into a 40 or 50 year old.”