Playing “brain-training” video games may help improve some cognitive abilities of people with multiple sclerosis (MS) by strengthening neural connections in an important part of their brains, a new study has claimed.
MS is a disease of the central nervous system that results in damage to the protective covering of nerve fibres. Symptoms include weakness, muscle stiffness and difficulty thinking - a phenomenon often referred to as “brain fog.” According to the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation, MS affects an estimated 2.5 million people worldwide, researchers said.
Damage to the thalamus, a structure in the middle of the brain that acts as a kind of information hub, and its connections with other parts of the brain play an important role in the cognitive dysfunction many MS patients experience.
Researchers led by Laura De Giglio, from the Sapienza University in Rome, studied the effects of a video game-based cognitive rehabilitation programme on the thalamus in patients with MS.
Twenty-four MS patients with cognitive impairment were randomly assigned to either take part in an eight-week, home-based rehabilitation programme - consisting of 30-minute gaming sessions, five days per week - or be put on a wait list, serving as the control group.
Patients were evaluated by cognitive tests and by 3-Tesla resting state functional MRI (RS-fMRI) at baseline and after the eight-week period.
“Functional MRI allows you to study which brain areas are simultaneously active and gives information on the participation of certain areas with specific brain circuits,” De Giglio said.
At follow-up, the 12 patients in the video-game group had significant increases in thalamic functional connectivity in brain areas corresponding to the posterior component of the default mode network, which is one of the most important brain networks involved in cognition.
The results provide an example of the brain’s plasticity, or ability to form new connections throughout life. “This increased connectivity reflects the fact that video gaming experience changed the mode of operation of certain brain structures,” De Giglio said.
“This means that even a widespread and common use tool like video games can promote brain plasticity and can aid in cognitive rehabilitation for people with neurological diseases, such as multiple sclerosis,” she said.
The modifications in functional connectivity shown in the video game group after training corresponded to significant improvements in test scores assessing sustained attention and executive function, the higher-level cognitive skills that help organise our lives and regulate our behaviour.
The results suggest that video-game-based brain training is an effective option to improve cognitive abilities of patients with MS, researchers said. The study was published in the journal Radiology.