New research by IU Media School doctoral candidate Kelsey Prena suggests that may indeed be the case.
Well, could be.
Before we go any further, Prena wants to make one thing clear: the only link she’s shown is that gamers, or those who play video games for at least five hours per week, demonstrate better short-term memory and better process new information compared to non-gamers, as measured by how many words from a list of 15 both groups remembered half an hour later.
As for Alzheimer’s —
“That’s research for later, when I have tenure,” she said.
But. . .
And it’s that ‘but’ that’s the basis of research that just might provide a ray of hope for those with Alzheimer’s and Down syndrome.
A video-game obsessed boyfriend — now fiancé — set Prena on the path to her life’s work.
“I couldn’t figure out why he loved them so much,” she said. “And I wondered: ‘Why are video games so fun? Why do we commit so much of our lives to playing them?’”
According to the Entertainment Software Association’s 2017 annual report, the total amount spent on the U.S. video game industry in 2017 was $36 billion — nearly three times the NFL’s annual revenue. The average time people spent playing video games online each week was 6.5 hours — a figure, Prena notes, that’s minuscule compared to the average she sees among the college students who volunteer for her studies.
“We don’t have any trouble at all recruiting people in the 70s,” she said.
To be clear, that’s 10 hours a day, on average.
In an Indy PopCon panel entitled “The Potential of Video Games for Learning,” Prena presented the results of two studies she conducted investigating the effects of video games on learning and memory.
A quick caveat: She’s a doctoral candidate at IU with a minor in neuroscience. Her PopCon audience was more familiar with Nebula than neurons.
Good thing the Ph.D. she’s pursuing is in Communication Science. Here’s a primer:
Two neurotransmitters, chemical messengers that carry signals between nerve cells and other cells in the body, are the linchpins of Prena’s research. The first is GABA, which protects connections the brain has already made, but, if present in excess, makes it hard to form to form new connections and take in information. Elevated GABA levels in people with Alzheimer’s and Down Syndrome mean these individuals have far more difficulty creating new “links.” In other words, Alzheimer’s patients remember what happened to them long ago, but can’t form any new memories.
The other is dopamine, the brain’s pleasure chemical. Video games, as Prena explains it, are so fun because a “reward cascade” of neurotransmitters is released when players try to achieve a goal. Dopamine is like a shot of Red Bull to the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center that “goes crazy” and “gets more and more excited” as an individual gets closer to achieving a reward. In a nutshell, more dopamine leads to better memory performance.
That same memory boost, Prena said, can also be achieved by decreasing GABA, a neurotransmitter that acts like a sleeping pill on the hippocampus – something she’s proved video games also do.
Dopamine spikes and GABA decreases after achieving a reward — like, say, leveling up in a video game — a boost that, in mice, has been documented to occur for at least five minutes afterward.
As for humans. . .
“We’re not sure yet,” she said. “There was one study that showed that dopamine was heightened in humans for about 15 minutes after playing a racing game, but it was a little sloppy.”
She also compared reward-based video games with non-reward-based games – and, after participants played both types for 40 minutes, found that those who played reward-based games like "Galaga" and "Sonic Adventure 2" remembered almost a full word more from a list of 15 immediately following gameplay. Gamers who played non-reward-based games forgot 3.5 words from the list, on average, while those who played reward-based games forgot only 2.75.
The difference between gamers and non-gamers was also significant: non-gamers who played the reward-based game forgot 3.5 words compared to the gamers’ 2.75.
And it’s that finding that just might be a ray of hope for people with Alzheimer’s and Down Syndrome.
Prena knows her presentation is hardly par for the course for PopCon. In a hall full of hammers, bows and lightsabers, her weapon of choice for fighting a disease that robs its victims of their dignity is decidedly neurological.
And she’s excited about the implications of her findings.
“I babysat a girl with Down syndrome for five years growing up,” she said. “When I first learned kids with Down syndrome have high GABA, and then I learned playing video games may decrease GABA, I thought that was really cool.”
People with Down syndrome manufacture excess GABA in their hippocampuses, so if children with Down syndrome play video games, Prena believes, it could potentially improve their memory performance and promote learning by lowering GABA levels in their brains.
“Mice with the equivalent of Down syndrome perform memory tasks better, but we’re not sure about humans,” she said.
People with Alzheimer’s also overproduce GABA, so she believes playing video games could help preserve their memory – and, now that she’s established the initial link between video games and improved memory and learning, she’s eager to get started on the research.
“This is all speculation, but it’s promising,” she said.
She’s given several presentations to Down syndrome groups, and her ultimate goal is to use her knowledge of the changes that occur in the brain during video game play to help improve memory formation in children with learning impairments, Down syndrome specifically.
Her next step is to investigate whether playing video games impacts memory formation long-term.
“We had people remember 15 vocab words for half an hour,” she said. “Did gamers remember more than non-gamers after 24 hours? Can video games influence memory formation long-term?”
The cure for Alzheimer’s disease may not be "Sonic the Hedgehog."
But, with any luck, he might just be the brain band-aid sufferers are seeking.