Playing the 3D-platform video game Super Mario 64 regularly over 6 months improved cognitive function and increased gray matter in the hippocampus and cerebellum in older adults, according to a small study published online in PLoS One.
“Maintaining grey matter within the hippocampus is important for healthy cognition,” researchers wrote. “Playing 3D-platform video games has previously been shown to promote grey matter in the hippocampus in younger adults.”
To investigate whether 3D-platform games offered the same benefits to older players, researchers recruited 33 adults age 55-75 and randomly assigned them to 1 of 3 groups: a Super Mario 64 video game training group, a computerized piano training group that served as an active control, or a no-contact control group that did not participate in any intervention. The video game training group and the piano training group were instructed to play 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week, over 6 months.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans showed that the 8 participants assigned to the video game group experienced within-individual growth in the hippocampus, a brain region primarily associated with spatial and episodic memory, and in the cerebellum, which plays a major role in motor control and balance. Cognitive performance tests also showed improvements in short-term memory.
Meanwhile, the 12 participants in the piano training group showed gray matter increases in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex—which controls planning, decision-making, and inhibition—and in the cerebellum.
In comparison, the 13 older adults in the passive control group showed a degree of atrophy in the hippocampus, cerebellum, and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Gray matter atrophy is typical when people age without learning new things.
“The good news is that we can reverse those effects and increase volume by learning something new, and games like Super Mario 64, which activate the hippocampus, seem to hold some potential in that respect,” said researcher Gregory West, PhD, a psychology professor at the Université de Montréal in Quebec. He explained that players engage the hippocampus as they create a cognitive map of the virtual environment they are navigating.
“It remains to be seen whether it is specifically brain activity associated with spatial memory that affects plasticity,” Dr. West added, “or whether it’s simply a matter of learning something new.”