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Video Games Could Save Your Grandparents’ Brains

The good, the bad and the ugly things we learned about our bodies today

Retirement homes better stock up on video game consoles: A new study suggests that playing 3D-platform video games (like Super Mario 64) on a regular basis may improve cognitive functions in seniors by increasing gray matter in the hippocampus, a region of the brain primarily associated with spatial and episodic memory.

To come to such a conclusion, researchers recruited 33 people — ages 55 to 75 — who were randomly assigned to three separate groups. Some participants were instructed to play Super Mario 64 for 30 minutes a day, five days a week (side note: We’re totally jealous). Others were instructed to take piano lessons (for the first time in their lives) with the same frequency and in the same sequence. The last group did not perform either task.

After six months, researchers performed cognitive performance tests and magnetic resonance imaging on the participants to measure variations in the volume of gray matter. According to the MRI test results, only the participants in the gamer group saw increases in gray matter volume in the hippocampus and cerebellum (a brain structure that plays a major role in motor control and balance). Their short-term memory also improved.

The piano players saw gray matter increases in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (a brain structure associated with planning, decision-making and inhibition) and cerebellum. Some degree of atrophy was noted in all three areas of the brain among those who opted out of gaming and making music.

But what’s going on here? How can playing Super Mario 64 better your grandpapa’s brain?

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

Well, shit: Game on, Grandpa.

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