Playing 3-D video games can boost memory formation

December 9, 2015

Video games used in the experiment : screenshot of 2-D Angry Birds (left) and Super Mario 3D World (right) (credit: Gregory D. Clemenson and Craig E.L. Stark/The Journal of Neuroscience)

Playing three-dimensional video games can boost the formation of memories, especially for people who lose memory as they age or suffer from dementia, according to University of California, Irvine (UCI) neurobiologists.

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.

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.

Students playing the 3-D video game improved their scores on the memory test by about 12 percent, the same amount it normally decreases between the ages of 45 and 70, while the 2-D gamers did not improve.

UC Irvine | 3D Video Games and Memory – UC Irvine

Role of the hippocampus

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.

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 lot more spatial information in there to explore. Second, they’re much more complex, with a lot more information to learn,” Stark noted.

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.

Myths of “brain training”

“Results from this study add to the existing literature that playing video games may provide meaningful stimulation to the brain. However, it is important to be cautious when generalizing these results to other instances. Recently, 70 neuroscientists from universities and institutions around the world published a letter discussing the myths of “brain training” (Max Planck Institute for Human Development/Stanford Center on Longevity, 2014. A consensus on the brain training industry from the scientific community. Stanford, CA: Stanford Center on Longevity).

“In contrast to typical brain training, typical video games are not created with specific cognitive processes in mind but rather designed to captivate and immerse the user into charactersand adventure. Rather than isolate single brain processes, modern video games can naturally draw on or require 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.”

— Gregory D. Clemenson and Craig E.L. Stark. Virtual Environmental Enrichment through Video Games Improves Hippocampal-Associated Memory. The Journal of Neuroscience.

The next step 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.

“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, viable route.”

The research is described in a paper published today (Dec. 9) in The Journal of Neuroscience and is funded by a $300,000 Dana Foundation grant.