An animated image of two elderly adults playing video games on a couch with two dogs is shown.
Video games that offer 3-D graphics could help stave off mental decline, a new study suggests. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

It’s a gamer’s dream: A study shows playing 3-D video games boosts memory.

But what does that mean for non-gamers? Will Super Mario become like broccoli for the brain―play it because it’s good for you?

Not exactly, says David Bertram, PsyD, a clinical neuropsychologist with Spectrum Health Medical Group.

The intriguing study, from researchers at University of California, Irvine, finds playing video games with a 3-D format can boost the formation of memories. And the authors say it could lead to novel approaches to help people who lose memory as they age or suffer from dementia.

The study draws on a premise long known by neuroscience providers, Dr. Bertram said.

“Mental activity is good for you,” he said. “We encourage physical and mental activity. It’s good in all stages of life and especially when people have some degree of cognitive decline.”

But in general, he encourages people to choose an activity they enjoy―whether it’s bridge, crossword puzzles or video games.

“We tend to stick with things we enjoy and tend to build skills around things we enjoy,” he said.

In the study, college students played video games 30 minutes a day for two weeks. One group played games with a two-dimensional environment, such as “Angry Birds,” and the other played games with complex 3-D settings, such as “Super Mario 3D World.”

The students took memory tests before and after the two-week period. The tests required them to categorize items, recognizing ones that were slightly altered. The researchers said this requires the hippocampus, which has been shown to decline with age.

The students in the 3-D group improved their performance by about 12 percent. The 2-D gamers showed no change.

The researchers said the immersive 3-D environment may lead to functional gains because they provide a more enriching experience that better parallels the real world.

Next, they plan to study whether environmental enrichment can reverse cognitive deficits in older people.

“Overall, it’s an interesting (study),” Dr. Bertram said. “They point out that we need to continue to do research in this area as the generalizability of these findings remain unproven.”

“I don’t think it will be the cure for dementia. But here we have another tool we add to our toolbox, potentially.”

Dr. Bertram noted many senior programs already use video games, such as Wii sports, to engage participants in social and physical activities.

“If you’re willing to give it a shot, it probably can’t hurt you,” he said.

“The key is it has to be something engaging and enjoyable,” he said. “A lot of our older generation may not be attracted to the computers and video games. You don’t want to force something on somebody.

“However, there can also be an important social aspect tied to various types of mental activity, and novel tasks can certainly open the door for social engagement and discussion.”

The study appears in the Journal of Neuroscience.