Magazine article Aging Today

UCSF's Adam Gazzaley on How Video Gaming Improves Cognition

Magazine article Aging Today

UCSF's Adam Gazzaley on How Video Gaming Improves Cognition

Article excerpt

Speaking with neurologist Adam Gazzaley is akin to running behind an experienced trail racer-they're always around the next bend and out of sight before you've managed to catch your breath. Or as Gazzaley puts it, "I do tend to work pretty intensely."

As director of the Gazzaley Lab at University of California, San Francisco, he is immersed in cognitive neuroscience research, aimed at solving the mysteries of the aging brain, from childhood through normal aging and into dementia. Gazzaley, age 45, would like to have a hand in intervening to prevent or delay cognitive deficits. Aging Today spoke with Gazzaley in early August about his research and the role video games play in it.

Aging Today: What first interested you in the field of neurology over other medical specialties?

Adam Gazzaley: My interest started more generally with science as a kid, then during my undergrad years I became attracted to the brain. I was first interested in astronomy, but the brain has the same appeal of exploration of the unknown.

AT: What percentage of the work you do relates to older adults?

AG: Probably 75 percent of our work is with older adults.

AT: Please explain where you see research on dementia and Alzheimer's disease headed in the near future.

AG: At one point, we focused almost exclusively on molecules, such as neurotransmitter systems and pathological proteins; some were associated with normal aging, and some with dementia. Now my lab is focused on understanding how the brain functions in optimal and suboptimal ways and how we can improve cognition in the context of healthy aging and neurodegenerative diseases. While others are looking for cures, we are looking at ways to resist or delay the functional consequences of these diseases.

We know there is cognitive reserve. If we build a stronger brain it may not stop or cure diseases like Alzheimer's, but it may lead to a delay in life-impairing consequences of disease.

AT: What is your lab's most recent area of research on preserving cognitive abilities?

AG: We had a paper in Nature in Sept. 2013 that essentially became a blueprint for how we are conducting many of our new experiments. We built a video game, customized from scratch, targeting deficits in the cognitive abilities of older adults. Neuroracer, the game we used in the Nature paper, improved multitasking abilities on the game itself and also improved cognitive skills that were not directly targeted by the game, such as working memory and attention span.

We now have developed six more games that are in various stages of research to see if we can find other innovative approaches to improve cognitive abilities. For example, we have a meditation-inspired game that's almost ready for testing, and a game targeting both physical and cognitive fitness at the same time.

The games we build engage the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in cognitive control, the skills that allow us to interact in the world in a goal-directed way (working memory, attention, goal management, task switching, multitasking). Games challenge participants in a way that's adaptive. As they get better at playing the game, the game gets harder. It then uses feedback to make it engaging, and allows them to immerse themselves. It's like working out at the gym. Our brain responds to this because it's plastic.

AT: We hear a lot about the plasticity of the brain, but could you describe the latest findings and how your lab might be putting them to use?

AG: Brain plasticity is a general term in that it describes the brain's ability to modify itself in response to stimulation in the environment. We used to think it stopped after critical stages of development and the rest of your life, your brain decayed. Now we know that's not true. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.