A participant takes part in the study at her home. Photo: Simon Coutu/Québec Science

Studies over the last decade have shown that video games can improve brain plasticity and the volume of gray matter in younger people.

Those brain benefits also extend to older gamers, and their memory performance, according to a new study.

The learning of new skills like the world of Super Mario 64 – or playing the piano – encourages hippocampal memory use, and keeps the brain working, claims the paper in PLoS ONE.

“3-D video games engage the hippocampus into creating a cognitive map, or mental representation, of the virtual environment that the brain is exploring,” said Gregory West, one of the authors, from the Universite de Montreal. “Several studies suggest stimulation of the hippocampus increases both functional activity and gray matter within this region.”

The 33 subjects were between 55- and 75-years-old, and they were split into three groups.

For six months, one of the groups played Super Mario 64 five days a week for 30 minutes, another group learned the piano (for the first time) from self-directed lessons at a MIDI keyboard, and the third group was a control group that did not actively pursue new knowledge.

Before the training and at its conclusion, all the participants were given two memory tests, the Montreal cognitive assessment and short-term memory performance using speech sounds. Additionally, their brains were examined by Voxel-based morphometry, using a Siemens TIM Trio 3T MRI system. The physical changes measured were especially scrutinized in three detailed locations: the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which controls planning and decision making; the cerebellum, key in motor control and balance; and the hippocampus, the locus of spatial and episodic memory.

Video games, they conclude, increased volume in the hippocampus and the cerebellum, and their short-term memory improved.

Piano lessons appeared to structurally boost the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and cerebellum.

The group that did not play the games or learn piano, on the other hand, showed a small extent of deterioration in the three areas of the brain investigated.

“How can music and video game training cause specific changes in neural structures?” they write. “With respect to changes in gray matter, as measured by VBM, it has been established that cognitive training can target specific neural structures that support the performance of the cognitive task in question. This can include effects based on both sensorimotor recruitment and the use of cognitive processes such as spatial or working memory.”

But the scientists said in a school statement that they were unsure whether video games and piano are highly-directed brain boosters – or if it was just a matter of challenging the gray matter with new information and experience.

“It remains to be seen whether it is specifically brain activity associated with spatial memory that affects plasticity, or whether it’s simply a matter of learning something new,” concluded West.