MONDAY, June 13, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- Playing a memory-straining video game can help children solve problems more easily, a goal that can be difficult to achieve through so-called cognitive training, a new study suggests.
The research doesn't suggest that ordinary video games have this kind of power. But it does show how a particular type of training can boost brain skills even months later, said study author Susanne M. Jaeggi, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan.
"You have to train, and you have to train well," Jaeggi said. "Effects don't come for free. There is effort involved, just like in physical training when you need to run and not just walk in order to improve your fitness level."
The researchers looked specifically at attention and what's called "working memory" in children. Jaeggi said that refers to temporary storage in the brain that's used for such things as solving math problems. For example, if you're solving a multiplication problem like 34 times 7, you need to go through several steps -- 7 times 4, then 7 times 3 -- and briefly remember the answers, she explained.
"If information is lost during this process due to working memory limitations, then the task cannot be completed," Jaeggi said. "In general, working memory capacity is crucial for our general ability to acquire knowledge and learn new skills, and it has been shown that working memory is even better at predicting scholastic achievement than measures of intelligence."
In their study, Jaeggi and her fellow researchers tried to stretch the working memory of 62 elementary and middle school students by having them play a video game in which they had to remember the previous locations of frogs on lily pads. The game became harder as children became better at it, but easier if they struggled.
Those who improved the most did the best on tests three months later, even though tests given before the training did not show that those students had any advantage over the other children, according to the study, published online in this week's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Jaeggi said it's possible, but not proven, that the brain training via the video game could help students later in life because those who score well on tests tend to do well in school and on the job later in life.
She added that the tests show that the students "improved one very important part of IQ with our training."
Brain researcher Dr. Torkel Klingberg, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, said that other studies of techniques designed to boost working memory have shown similar effects, and even bigger ones.
And Adrian M. Owen, a cognitive neuroscience researcher who holds the Canada Excellence Research Chair at the University of Western Ontario, said that his previous research had debunked claims that commercial "brain training" systems improve cognitive powers in adults. But, he said, the new study is different: It looked at children, not adults, and examined intensive training in one task.
So if one specially designed a video game can help boost the brain power of some children, might all video games do the same?
No such luck, Jaeggi said. Strategy games might help boost intelligence, she said, but shoot-'em-up games don't seem to do so.
Harvard University offers more on the brain.