UCI: Playing 3-D video
games can boost memory formation
December 28, 2015
Don’t put that controller down just
yet. Playing three-dimensional video games – besides being lots of fun –
can boost the formation of memories, according to University of
California, Irvine neurobiologists.
Along with adding to the trove of research that shows these games can
improve eye-hand coordination and reaction time, this finding shows the
potential for novel virtual approaches to helping people who lose memory
as they age or suffer from dementia. Study results appear Dec. 9 in The
Journal of Neuroscience.
For their research, Craig Stark and Dane Clemenson of UCI’s Center for
the Neurobiology of Learning & Memory recruited non-gamer college
students to play either a video game with a passive, two-dimensional
environment (“Angry Birds”) or one with an intricate, 3-D setting
(“Super Mario 3D World”) for 30 minutes per day over two weeks.
professor of neurobiology & behavior Craig Stark, here holding a
3-D-printed model of his own hippocampus, says that “video games may be
a nice, viable route” to maintaining cognitive health.
Before and after the two-week period,
the students took memory tests that engaged the brain’s hippocampus, the
region associated with complex learning and memory. They were given a
series of pictures of everyday objects to study. Then they were shown
images of the same objects, new ones and others that differed slightly
from the original items and asked to categorize them. Recognition of the
slightly altered images requires the hippocampus, Stark said, and his
earlier research had demonstrated that the ability to do this clearly
declines with age. This is a large part of why it’s so difficult to
learn new names or remember where you put your keys as you get older.
Students playing the 3-D video game improved their scores on the memory
test, while the 2-D gamers did not. The boost was not small either.
Memory performance increased by about 12 percent, the same amount it
normally decreases between the ages of 45 and 70.
In previous studies on rodents, postdoctoral scholar Clemenson and
others showed that exploring the environment resulted in the growth of
new neurons that became entrenched in the hippocampus’ memory circuit
and increased neuronal signaling networks. Stark noted some
commonalities between the 3-D game the humans played and the environment
the rodents explored – qualities lacking in the 2-D game.
“First, the 3-D games have a few things the 2-D ones do not,” he said.
“They’ve got a lot more spatial information in there to explore. Second,
they’re much more complex, with a lot more information to learn. Either
way, we know this kind of learning and memory not only stimulates but
requires the hippocampus.”
Stark added that it’s unclear whether the overall amount of information
and complexity in the 3-D game or the spatial relationships and
exploration is stimulating the hippocampus. “This is one question we’re
following up on,” he said.
Unlike typical brain training programs, the professor of neurobiology &
behavior pointed out, video games are not created with specific
cognitive processes in mind but rather are designed to immerse users in
the characters and adventure. They draw on many cognitive processes,
including visual, spatial, emotional, motivational, attentional,
critical thinking, problem-solving and working memory.
“It’s quite possible that by explicitly avoiding a narrow focus on a
single … cognitive domain and by more closely paralleling natural
experience, immersive video games may be better suited to provide
enriching experiences that translate into functional gains,” Stark said.
next step for him and his colleagues is to determine if environmental
enrichment – either through 3-D video games or real-world exploration
experiences – can reverse the hippocampal-dependent cognitive deficits
present in older populations. This effort is funded by a $300,000 Dana
“Can we use this video game approach to help improve hippocampus
functioning?” Stark asked. “It’s often suggested that an active, engaged
lifestyle can be a real factor in stemming cognitive aging. While we
can’t all travel the world on vacation, we can do many other things to
keep us cognitively engaged and active. Video games may be a nice,
The Journal of Neuroscience study was supported by the National
Institute on Aging (grant R01-AG034613) and the James S. McDonnell
Foundation (grant 624748).