It would be very easy to say that video games do nothing but ruin brain cells and encourage violent behavior, but that’s not what studies have found. Instead, research shows that playing games can have significant cognitive benefits, increase social skills in kids with autism, and improve brain connections. Now, a recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology suggests these types of games can increase working memory and cognitive behavior in childhood cancer survivors.

The researchers analyzed 68 kids aged 8 to 16 who had undergone cranial irradiation and intrathecal chemotherapy,which involves delivering anti-cancer drugs directly into the cerebrospinal fluid surrounding the brain and spine; both are used to treat acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) and brain tumors. Study participants had successfully completed these treatments and had been symptom-free for at least a year. Yet, as is often the case following these types of therapy, all of the kids scored low on tests involving working memory.

The researchers randomly assigned half of the group to begin intensive, adaptive computer-based cognitive training immediately, while the other half was offered the training six months down the line. Researchers also provided weekly telephone calls for both the kids and their families. The training ranged from 20 to 30 sessions, with each session lasting between 30 and 45 minutes. Included in the training were verbal and visual exercises that looked like video games, but were actually created to improve the participant’s working memory.

Those who began the training right away underwent functional MRI brain scans before and after the training was completed. This way, researchers could track the participant’s brain activity while they performed a memory exercise. The results showed a decrease of activity in specific prefrontal regions, which led researchers to believe that their brains were working more efficiently.

"That suggests the intervention exercised and strengthened the well-established working memory network," first and corresponding author Dr. Heather Conklin, an associate member of the St. Jude Department of Psychology, said in a press release. "The implication is that the brain may operate more efficiently and have less need for compensatory strategies. Such training-induced neuroplasticity suggests the benefits might be sustained going forward."

Kids who played these cognitive-based games saw a moderate increase in attention and processing speed, as well as a significant increase in working memory. Out of the 30 survivors who completed the training, each one regained what’s considered a normal working memory. Survivors also reported improvements in attention and functioning when compared to those who didn’t complete the training. These changes suggest that the training can help with neuroplasticity, ultimately improving their quality of life.

"These results suggest that computerized cognitive training may help fill a void in management of cognitive late effects that impact quality of life for childhood cancer survivors, such as the likelihood they will complete school and live independently," Conklin said. "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."

The research team is now focusing on the benefits of starting the training during treatment, or combining it with other forms of intervention. They are also attempting to find whether or not these changes last in the long-term and help with academic performance, as the benefits of training did not extend to kids’ math or reading scores.

Source: Conklin, H, et al. Computerized Cognitive Training for Amelioration of Cognitive Late Effects Among Childhood Cancer Survivors: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Clinical Oncology. 2015.