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Sunday, December 21, 2014

Notorious time waster may train the brain

Just because a video game distracts students from homework doesn’t mean it’s not making them smarter.

Scientists at the Mind Research Network in Albuquerque completed a six-month study about the effects the game Tetris have on the brain.

Richard Haier, a Tetris study researcher, said his group recruited 26 adolescent girls who had no experience playing Tetris or most other video games. He said for three months, 15 girls were asked to play Tetris for about one hour per week and the other 11 girls played no Tetris at all.

Haier said the findings were unexpected.

“In the group that practiced Tetris, the brain got more efficient in certain areas and the cortex also got thicker in certain areas,” Haier said. “The big surprise was that we thought (the changes) would be in the same areas, but they weren’t.”

Haier said the brain became more efficient in the frontal lobe of the brain, which means less blood flow to particular areas.

“We were interested in what changes take place in your brain when you learn something,” Haier said. “When you practice Tetris, the brain seems to get more efficient because it uses less energy.”

Haier said that in addition to having parts of the girls’ brains become more efficient, the outer part of the brain — the cortex — showed some growth. He said he doesn’t know if these physical changes are beneficial.

“We’re not sure what the implication of a thicker cortex is, but we think it’s better,” Haier said. “We think you are getting more neurons or more synapses as a consequence of learning, but we don’t really know.”

Haier said his team scanned the brains of all 26 girls before and after the study. The team used functional and structural magnetic resonance imaging, and there were significant brain changes shown in both, he said.

Rex Jung, an MRN researcher, said the scans show obvious changes in the brain, but he wants to do further studies with video games. He said he wants to find out how brain changes might affect other skills.

“We only tested Tetris, but it would have been interesting to see if the girls’ ability to remember or their ability to rotate geometric designs improved from playing Tetris,” Jung said. “We just didn’t do that during this study.”

Jung said they want to repeat the study with adults to see if it can prevent memory deterioration. He said the MRN want to know whether mind games, like Brain Age, Sudoku, and Tetris, which are marketed to older people, have measurable benefits.
Student Tayler Nolan said she used to play Tetris a lot but doesn’t think that it made her smarter.

“I don’t think Tetris has improved my brain capacity, but I think other more challenging games like Sudoku do,” Nolan said.

Nolan said she thinks some games have more critical thinking value than others. She said it would be interesting to see a Sudoku study compared to the Tetris study.
“Sudoku makes you look at things in a different way,” she said. “Tetris is just a video game.”

Jung said Blue Planet Software, the owner of Tetris, sponsored the $90,000 study but had nothing to do with the experiment, results or publication.