Playing cognitive games may improve brain connections in patients with multiple sclerosis, a new study has found. These “brain training” video games strengthen neural connections in the thalamus, a crucial part of the brain.
Multiple sclerosis attacks the central nervous system, damaging the protective covering of nerves. With symptoms that include muscle stiffness, weakness and the so-called “brain fog,” MS affects about 2.5 million individuals worldwide, according to the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation.
Fifty percent of all MS patients suffer cognitive dysfunction, which may be rooted in damage to the thalamus. This part of the brain is an information hub that connects other areas of the organ, thus its own damage translates to poor neural connectivity elsewhere.
Researchers led by Dr. Laura De Giglio from Sapienza University in Rome used a Nintendo game collection known as Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Training, which uses word memory, puzzles and other mental challenges. They assigned 24 MS patients with cognitive decline to either an eight-week, home-based rehabilitation plan – made up of 30-minute video gaming sessions five days a week – or a wait-list acting as a control group.
At the start and end of the experiment, the participants were evaluated via cognitive tests and resting state MRA scans, which can inform about their state of neural connectivity.
The team found that 12 patients in the video gaming group significantly improved in their cognitive tests, as well as had increased thalamic functional connectivity in a brain region dealing with cognition. The findings also displayed the plasticity of the brain, or its ability to form new neural connection in one’s lifetime.
The results demonstrated that video games can change how certain brain structures operate.
"This means that even a widespread and common use tool like video games can promote brain plasticity,” Dr. De Giglio says, highlighting the benefits for persons with neurological conditions such as MS.
The team is currently investigating how video games can be incorporated in a rehabilitation plan to be combined with other cognitive enhancement methods.
The findings were published in the journal Radiology.