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By Dr Tom Christie

August 3rd, 2014

MENTAL BLOCKS: Can Tetris Combat the Advance of Dementia?

Over the years we have heard many accounts of meaningful activity and its potential capacity to slow the progression of dementia symptoms.  Crossword puzzles, sudoku, jigsaws and other activities which rely primarily upon mental dexterity have all been studied with regard to their ability to decrease memory loss’s rate of onset and the decline of cognitive function.  The past decade has even seen the rise of specialised ‘brain training’ software on many platforms, most especially portable games consoles, which combine mathematical puzzles and spatial awareness challenges alongside literacy tests, all to encourage players to hone their skills of cognitive reasoning.  Here too there has been scientific testing to determine the short- and long-term benefits of this kind of software in combating dementia.  But when it comes to videogames which rely upon shape recognition and spatial awareness, what about the great-granddaddy of them all?

Tetris is among the most immediately-recognisable computer games of all time, ranking alongside the likes of Pac-Man and Space Invaders as a veritable colossus of the genre.  Designed by Alexei Pajitnov, its original programmer, in the early eighties, Tetris is almost certainly the most famous game ever to have emerged from Russia.  Released in June 1984 while Pajitnov was in the employ of the Dorodnicyn Computing Centre at Moscow's Academy of Science of the USSR, the maddeningly addictive Tetris was quickly exported to other countries around the world including publication by Mirrorsoft in the UK and Spectrum Holobyte in the USA.  The game was released on popular eighties home computer platforms including the Sinclair Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC and, over time, it was developed for the newer 16-bit systems such as the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga, as well as the stalwart MS-DOS for IBM PC compatibles.  However, it was in 1989 when Tetris was bundled with the revolutionary Nintendo Game Boy, one of the first and most popular hand-held gaming systems, that the game became destined to go down in history.  Between in-pack bundles and separate sales, Tetris is thought to have sold more than 30 million copies for the Game Boy alone.  In the past ten years, well over a hundred million copies of the game have been downloaded onto mobile phones.

The true legacy of Tetris has been its portability.  It has gone on to be adapted, in official and homebrew variations, for quite literally just about every computer platform and operating system.  This has included arcade machines, games consoles and even graphic calculators.  The simplicity of its gameplay, making it exceptionally easy to learn how to play, has also aided in promoting the appeal of the game across the world.  A random series of tetrominoes, shapes which are comprised of four square blocks in a number of different configurations, are sent vertically down a shaft.  The player must rotate each tetromino so that, collectively, they interlock to complete a solid line.  Once the line is filled it disappears, clearing an area of the playing field.  However, if the player fails to connect enough pieces into a complete line, the shaft is gradually filled until no further play is possible, thus ending the game.  In most variations of the game, the speed that the pieces fall down the shaft gradually increases as the game progresses, introducing an additional challenge.

If the above description makes Tetris sound like a simple premise, that's because it is.  It is also highly addictive, with a notorious 'just-one-more-go' factor which has become the stuff of legend.  However, there are proven benefits to the game beyond its playability.  A famous 2009 study by the Mind Research Network for Neurodiagnostic Discovery of Albuquerque, New Mexico, proved that the game did indeed have the potential to improve brain function  Conducted on a group of adolescent girls, the study was carried out over a three month period, where each subject played Tetris for thirty minutes a day.  Before and after the testing period, the subjects underwent two separate Magnetic Resonance Imaging scans – a structural MRI scan to examine cortical thickness, and a functional MRI scan to gauge brain activity.

At the end of the three month period, the subjects who had played Tetris on a daily basis showed greater cortical thickness than those in the control group who had not been exposed to the game.  This increased thickness occurred in the left frontal lobe and the left temporal lobe, sections of the brain associated with multisensory coordination and the planning of complex movements.  Greater brain activity was also evident, but in different regions of the brain – after periods of playing Tetris, the subjects’ right frontal and parietal lobes demonstrated a heightened level of efficiency.  These brain areas are related to functions such as critical thinking and language processing.

Because of the relatively small number of subjects (26, all of them female adolescents), it is thought that a future study which includes a larger and more demographically varied group of people may further aid scientific understanding of how Tetris affects the brain over time.  However, the Mind Research Network’s influential analysis is just one aspect of scientific research which has focused upon the game.  Dr Richard Heier, who was one of the authors of the 2009 study, had also led research as early as 1992 which proved that playing Tetris could result in increased efficiency of the human brain.  In recent years, Dr Emily Holmes of Oxford University has conducted research into the ability of playing Tetris to disturb the brain’s retention of traumatic events, which in time may conceivably be of use in ameliorating the effects of conditions such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Professor Jackie Andrade of Plymouth University has also led research into Tetris’s potential to assist people who are attempting to break a cycle of addition – for instance, giving up smoking – by shifting their attention onto the strategies of the game rather than the compulsive aspects of their behaviour.

All of these complex avenues of research would no doubt have surprised Alexei Pajitnov back in the early eighties, when he first coded the game to test the capabilities of an Elektronika 60 computer in a Moscow laboratory.  But with Tetris now easily accessed by just about anyone who has access to a computer, mobile tablet or smartphone, its potential benefits should not be dismissed.  With proven neurological research pointing towards the ability of the game to have advantageous effects on the brain when played regularly, scientists are beginning to ask whether Tetris can aid people in the later years of life to slow deterioration in the ageing brain.  The ability of Tetris to directly combat the advance of dementia has yet to be conclusively determined, though it remains of continuing interest to experts – neuroscientists and computer scientists foremost amongst them.  But with this ubiquitous game now more easy to download and play than ever before as it reaches its thirtieth anniversary, Tetris may prove to be one more useful tool in the personal kit of anyone seeking to maintain an active mind.