What if, as well as providing a fun way to enjoy our leisure time, video games could provide real benefits to our cognitive powers? That's the promise of a new musical rhythm game that can not only teach drumming but also improve short-term memory.

In a study of the game's effects, 47 adults aged between 60 and 79 years were split into two groups: one playing the musical rhythm game (called Rhythmicity) and one playing a normal word search game, for 20 minutes a day, 5 days a week for 8 weeks.

The difference between the two groups was clear: as players progressed in Rhythmicity, the ways it targeted visual perception and selective attention had a knock-on effect on short-term memory, as tested through a face recognition exercise.

"As hypothesized, only the rhythm training group exhibited improved short-term memory on a face recognition task, thereby providing important evidence that musical rhythm training can benefit performance on a non-musical task," write the researchers in their published paper.

Rhythmicity was developed with drummer Mickey Hart, once of the Grateful Dead, and used visual clues to train participants to play a rhythm on a tablet. The tempo, complexity, and precision required were all tweaked as players progressed.

Part of what makes the game special is that it can adapt itself to the person playing it, changing the difficulty level to push the player to improve without making it so hard that it's going to spoil the gaming experience.

The post-training analysis was done via electroencephalography (EEG) during a recognition task involving unknown faces. Rhythmicity players were better at identifying faces after the eight-week course, and the EEG readings showed increased activity in the superior parietal lobule – the brain region linked to sight reading music and short-term visual memory.

EEG cap on a person playing a video game
Analyzing brain activity while playing a game in the lab. (UCSF)

"That memory improved at all was amazing," says neuroscientist Theodore Zanto from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).

"There is a very strong memory training component to this, and it generalized to other forms of memory."

The researchers behind the study have been busy in this field since 2013 when they developed a game called NeuroRacer – a game that's been shown able to significantly improve diminished mental faculties and improve sustained attention and working memory in older adults after just four weeks.

That was followed by a game called Body-Brain Trainer, which a recent study has found is able to improve blood pressure, balance, and attention in elderly people. In that case, heart rate data was constantly being fed back to the software so the game could adapt to participants' fitness levels.

Another game, the virtual reality Labyrinth which engages users in spacial wayfinding, has demonstrated that it can improve long-term memory in older adults after four weeks of training.

A decline in cognitive control often comes with getting older, but these games are evidence that there are ways to maintain our mental sharpness.

"These games all have the same underlying adaptive algorithms and approach, but they are using very, very different types of activity. And in all of them we show that you can improve cognitive abilities in this population," says neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley from UCSF.

The research has been published in PNAS.