Video games targeting cognitive abilities may improve brain function in patients with multiple sclerosis (MS), a new study found. Results, published in the journal Radiology, showed that these games strengthen connections between neurons in the thalamus, a brain region crucial for information processing. The findings also add to extensive evidence of the brain’s ability to form new connections throughout life.
In addition to its many physical symptom, MS makes thinking difficult, further impacting patients’ disability. The condition, often referred to as “brain fog,” includes damage to the thalamus and its connection to other brain regions.
Researchers led by Laura De Giglio from Sapienza University in Rome, Italy, studied 24 MS patients with cognitive impairment who were enrolled in a video game-based cognitive rehabilitation program. The games used in the program are produced by the Nintendo Corporation and called Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Training. They were developed based on research by the Japanese neuroscientist Ryuta Kawashima, and include puzzles, word memory, and other mental challenges.
The study, titled “Multiple Sclerosis: Changes in Thalamic Resting-State Functional Connectivity Induced by a Home-based Cognitive Rehabilitation Program,“ randomly assigned patients to either video-game training or a waiting list. The trial — running for eight weeks — consisted of 30-minute gaming sessions, five days per week, performed in the patient’s home.
Patients were assessed using cognitive tests and resting state functional magnetic resonance imaging (RS-fMRI) before the study’s start, and again after eight weeks. The RS-fMRI imaging method is capable of measuring the connectivity among neurons in the brain.
“Functional MRI allows you to study which brain areas are simultaneously active and gives information on the participation of certain areas with specific brain circuits,” Dr. De Giglio said in a press release. “When we talk about increased connectivity, we mean that these circuits have been modified, increasing the extension of areas that work simultaneously.”
At the end of the training, patients in the video-gaming group demonstrated substantially increased connectivity in the thalamus — one of the most important cognition-related brain networks. These patients also performed better in tests evaluating sustained attention and executive function, cognitive skills that are crucial for organizing daily life and regulating behavior.
“This increased connectivity reflects the fact that video gaming experience changed the mode of operation of certain brain structures,” Dr. De Giglio said. “This means that even a widespread and common use tool like video games can promote brain plasticity and can aid in cognitive rehabilitation for people with neurological diseases, such as multiple sclerosis.”
While the findings indicate that video game-based brain training is effective in improving cognitive abilities in MS, the researchers hope to study whether such improved connectivity improves other aspects of patients’ lives as well. They also want to investigate how video games can be integrated into a rehabilitation program, together with other rehabilitative techniques.