Tetris May Boost Brain Efficiency in Teen Girls

A graphic representation of the video game Tetris.
Credit: Dmitry Sunagatov, Dreamstime.com

The classic video game Tetris has challenged players for years to fit a slew of falling virtual blocks into a jigsaw puzzle of other pieces. Now a brain imaging study has shown how playing Tetris can boost brain efficiency in teen girls, as well as increase thickening in parts of the brain.

Tetris enthusiasts can take comfort from knowing that the game at least provides some short term brain improvements, even if it doesn't lead to better eyesight like some shoot-'em-up video games. Whether the improvements last over time remains an open question.

The findings also have support from earlier research that shows how doing certain tasks can lead to better brain efficiency, and even physical brain growth. But uncertainty remains in the latest study, because the areas with changed brain activity did not match with the parts of the brain that showed thickening.

"Sure enough, we found structural changes and functional changes, but the lack of overlap is a mystery," said Richard Haier, a neuroscientist at the University of California-Irvine.

Haier first encountered Tetris at a software store in 1992, and found the game impressive enough to use in his research on how learning made the brain more efficient. His latest study represents a follow-up to his earlier Tetris study, in an attempt to match brain efficiency patterns with physical brain changes.

An earlier German study had shocked neuroscientists when it showed how practicing juggling led to noticeable thickening in the brain's cortex, or the outer layer that consists mainly of "gray matter" brain cells. Other studies have also revealed how expert golfers have more gray matter than golf novices.

Juggling and golf are all well and good. But the game Tetris provides a unique brain research tool to test brain growth and learning on an even broader scale, researchers say.

"Tetris integrates information in a variety of domains, whether it's visual-spatial, attention, or hand-eye motor coordination," Haier told Newsarama.

Haier joined several other colleagues in using fMRI brain scan technologies to examine both the functional and structural brain changes for playing Tetris. A group of 26 teen girls played Tetris for 30 minutes a day over three months, while a control group did not play Tetris.

Girls who played Tetris ended up with thicker gray matter in areas of the left frontal lobe and left temporal lobe, or parts of the brain that help plan complex movements and coordinate many different senses ranging from sight to hearing and touch. They also showed greater efficiency in the right frontal and parietal lobe areas that are involved with critical thinking, reasoning and language.

The mismatch between the brain areas that showed efficiency improvements and physical growth remains baffling. But Haier suggested that perhaps the thicker cortex allows for more efficiency, because the overall number of brain cells need not work as hard.

For now, the researchers look forward to taking the next step beyond their work detailed in the journal BMC Research Notes. Their initial work attracted funding from Blue Planet Software, the company that holds the license for Tetris.

"This study sets up next round of studies to try and see if each change leads to better performance on things other than Tetris," Haier said. "Maybe it helps as people's brains age, and as mental acuity falls off."

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