Study Suggests Video Games Could Have Health Benefits

By Andy Meek

The conventional wisdom might hold that playing video games is at best a pleasant diversion and at worst a form of entertainment that rots your brain. But new research led by St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital has come to a far different conclusion.

Dr. Heather Conklin, a member of the Department of Psychology at St. Jude, explains results of recent research to Jason Ashford that shows “intensive, adaptive computer-based cognitive training” presented as a video game helped improve working memory and other skills of childhood cancer survivors.

(St. Jude)

A study funded in part by grants from the National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society and ALSAC – the fundraising arm of St. Jude – has found that “intensive, adaptive computer-based cognitive training presented as a video game” has specific health benefits. Namely, such games can improve working memory and other cognitive skills of young cancer survivors, the study found.

The results were published earlier this month in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

For childhood cancer survivors who completed between 20 and 30 computer-based training sessions, they saw a boost in their working memory as well as improvements in their attention and processing speed, according to the study.

The latter metric measures the speed at which the brain sorts information.

The sessions that were part of the study lasted from half an hour to 45 minutes and included verbal and visual exercises presented as games that were designed to improve working memory. The results, said the study’s first and corresponding author Dr. Heather Conklin, suggest that computerized cognitive training could help fill a void in managing the cognitive late effects that impact quality of life for young cancer survivors, like the likelihood that they’ll finish school and live independently.

“While medication and therapist-led interventions have shown some benefit for select survivors, online training marks a significant advance by giving survivors convenient access to an effective intervention,” said Conklin, an associate member of the St. Jude Department of Psychology.

The study included 68 childhood cancer survivors who had received cranial irradiation, intrathecal chemotherapy or both for treatment of acute lymphoblastic leukemia or brain tumors.

Intrathecal chemotherapy involves delivering anti-cancer drugs directly into the cerebrospinal fluid surrounding the brain and spine, with such therapies leaving survivors at an increased risk for conditions that reduce academic, social and work-related achievement, according to St. Jude.

The study participants were from 8 to 16 years old. They’d all completed treatment and been disease-free for at least one year, and all had scored below expectations on measures of working memory before taking part in the study.

“Online training marks a significant advance by giving survivors convenient access to an effective intervention.”

–Dr. Heather Conklin

The results of the study would seem to fit with research published last year in “American Psychologist,” which found that playing video games could improve children’s health, learning and social skills, according to the American Psychological Association.

That study drew on earlier research and found that playing such games might boost skills that included spatial navigation, memory and perception, among others.

Conklin, meanwhile, said the results of the St. Jude-led study are good news for the more than 420,000 people said to represent the nation’s population of childhood cancer survivors. She said that computerized cognitive training is a “more feasible, portable and efficient” intervention than has been available in the past.

For purposes of the study, some participants also underwent functional MRI brain imaging before and soon after completing the exercises. The imaging tracked brain activity as the survivors completed a working memory exercise, and post-intervention imaging showed survivors as having decreased activity in specific prefrontal regions.

That, suggests the St. Jude study, means their brains may be working more efficiently.