That is significant, says Gazzaley. “NeuroRacer doesn’t demand too much of those particular abilities — so it appears that the multitasking challenge may put pressure on the entire cognitive control system, raising the level of all of its components.”
The team also recorded brain activity using electroencephalography while participants played NeuroRacer. As their skills increased, so did activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is associated with cognitive control, in a manner that correlated with improvements in sustained-attention tasks. Activity also increased in a neural network linking the prefrontal cortex with the back of the brain.
The industry that has grown around selling brain-training computer games has polarized opinion about the effectiveness of brain-training packages, says cognitive neuroscientist Torkel Klingberg of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. “Some companies are not based on real science, and have made unrealistic claims,” he says. “On the other hand, some psychologists have claimed that working memory and attention are fixed and can’t be trained up.”
But Gazzaley’s study confirms that cognitive function can be improved — if you design training methods properly, says Klingberg, who is a consultant for Cogmed, a company he founded in 1999 to market computer-based training methods, particularly for people with attention-deficit disorders.
Last year, Gazzaley also co-founded a company, called Akili, for which he is an adviser. It is developing a commercial product similar to NeuroRacer, which remains a research tool, and will seek approval from the US Food and Drug Administration to market it as a therapeutic agent. A ‘games’ approach might also help people with particular cognitive deficits, such as depression or schizophrenia, adds Daphne Bavelier, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Geneva in Switzerland, who develops computer games to improve brain function and who also advises Akili.
Gazzaley cautions against over-hyping: “Video games shouldn’t now be seen as a guaranteed panacea.” But Linsey, for her part, is happy with what the game did for her and about her own contribution. “It’s been exciting to discover the older brain can learn — and I’m glad my own brain helped make the discovery.”