Tetris test
Who knew that building block games like Tetris could so greatly impact cognition? (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Animated figures playing a Tetris-like video game are providing researchers with a model of brain evolution—one in which the brain becomes more complex in response to a challenging environment and complicated tasks.

But don’t use the results to justify buying that PlayStation 4 just yet.

While the research showed that playing the most difficult games resulted in the most complex wiring in neural networks, the effect was measured at the end of 60,000 generations—roughly 1.5 million years in human terms.

Neuroscientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Michigan State University programmed animated figures they call “animats,” made up of a rudimentary neural system of two sensors, two motors, and four internal computers that coordinate sensation, movement and memory. The human brain, by comparison, includes between 80 billion and 100 billion neurons.

Researchers tested the animats with a Tetris-like video game in which they had to “catch” falling blocks by predicting where they would land. The animats’ computer code, like DNA, allowed for random mutations, making some animats better catchers. The best players of each generation were allowed to replicate and to play more complex versions of the game.

After 60,000 generations, all of the animats had evolved more complex wiring in their neural networks, but the animats that did the best in complex versions of the game had developed the most intricate networks.

Neuroscientists have proposed this as a strategy for brain evolution.

“Since this is a macro study of brain evolution, it doesn’t have a lot to say about the impact of video game playing on individual brains,” said Michael Lawrence, PhD, a neuropsychologist with Spectrum Health Medical Group. “But it has plenty of implications for the effect of a rich and complex environment on the evolution of the brain over time.”

“Additionally, this may help to explain the sustaining nature of brain networks and why mental activity has been shown to be a protective factor in progressively dementing illnesses,” Dr. Lawrence added.

More complexity in the environment required the animats to develop more neural functions. But because the size of their brains was limited, the animats adapted to complexity by creating more integration in their small neural networks.

“This shows that by adapting to a more complex environment, the organism itself becomes more complex,” said UW-Madison researcher Larissa Albantakis, the study’s lead author.

Albantakis said she was most interested in the question of how the brain evolved to environments of different complexity and whether that evolution looks like what is predicted by Integrated Information Theory, a theoretical framework intended to explain the nature of consciousness.

If you want to treat yourself to that expensive video game system, there is plenty of other recent research demonstrating the positive impact of game playing on human brains.