Playing Super Mario 64 Increases Gray Matter In Old People's Brains

It's a-me, Mario. ngorkapong/Shutterstock

If you grew up in the '90s, there’s a fair chance you spent your wasted summers collecting coins and dodging Koopa Troopas in the video game Super Mario 64. According to new research, you should probably keep hold of your game cartridge for retirement.

A new study published in PLOS ONE has found that playing the video game Super Mario 64 increases the amount of gray matter in old adults' brains, especially in brain regions associated with spatial and episodic memory. The researchers on the project argue this means it could be used to stave off cognitive impairment, memory loss, and perhaps even Alzheimer's disease.

Psychologists at the University of Montreal recruited 33 people, aged between 55 and 75, and divided them into three groups. The first was instructed to play Super Mario 64 on a Nintendo Wii console for 30 minutes every day, for five days a week, over six months. The other group was given piano lessons with the same frequency, and the last group didn't perform a task.

Before and after the experiment, MRI scans and cognitive performance tests were carried out on all the participants. These tests showed that the video game group had an increasing amount of gray matter in their hippocampus and cerebellum, along with improvements in their short-term memory. Those who learned piano saw an increase in gray matter in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and cerebellum.

"3-D video games engage the hippocampus into creating a cognitive map, or a mental representation, of the virtual environment that the brain is exploring," Professor Gregory West, from the University of Montreal, said in a statement. "Several studies suggest stimulation of the hippocampus increases both functional activity and gray matter within this region."

Professor West explained that gray matter wastes away (atrophies) as people age. As you can imagine, cerebral atrophy is closely tied to cognitive decline and is a common feature of many neurological diseases that affect the brain like Alzheimer's disease.

"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 West.

"These findings can also be used to drive future research on Alzheimer's, since there is a link between the volume of the hippocampus and the risk of developing the disease," added Professor Sylvie Belleville. 

Recent years have seen many studies explore the link between playing video games and the brain. On the whole, the research has shown video games in an overwhelmingly positive light, linking them to improved memory formation and neural connectivity.

Despite what you read in the tabloids, video games are not bad for you, just make sure you get off the sofa now and again.

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