Tetris players are not block heads

Playing the computer game boosted brain’s gray matter

Sinking blocks and clearing lines in Tetris may pay off with more than just a high score. Playing the classic shape-fitting computer game, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, for just three months may boost the size and efficiency of parts of the brain, a study published September 1 in BMC Research Notes finds.

PUTTING THE PIECES TOGETHER Fitting together differently shaped blocks in Tetris changes the brain, a new study finds. Electronic Arts

“This is a fascinating result,” comments Pascale Michelon of Washington University in St. Louis. “It confirms how plastic the brain is.”

Brain scans revealed that certain regions of gray matter — an information-processing mix of brain cells and capillaries — grew thicker in 15 adolescent girls who had played Tetris for three months. On average, these participants played for just 1.5 hours per week. “Brain structure is much more dynamic than had been appreciated,” says Richard Haier of the University of California, Irvine, who coauthored the report with collaborators from McGill University in Montreal and the Mind Research Network in Albuquerque.

Brains of 11 girls who had not played the game showed no such increase. (Girls were chosen because they were less likely than boys to have extensive video game–playing experience, which might have thrown off the results, Haier says.)

In another test, the researchers used functional MRI to monitor brain activity during Tetris play. For the girls who had played Tetris, researchers found that some parts of the brain showed less activity than three months earlier, when the girls were Tetris novices. Brain activity of girls who had not played Tetris stayed the same over the three months.

Researchers aren’t sure why Tetris experience would lead to reduced neural activity in some regions, but one possibility is that the brain becomes more efficient. “We’re not sure, but we think the brain is learning which areas not to use,” says Haier. “As you learn the game, it becomes more automatic.”

Surprisingly, the brain regions that got bigger over the three months of Tetris play were not the same regions that showed a drop in activity, ruling out the simple explanation that as brain regions get bigger, they become more efficient. But understanding how the brain works is never straightforward, Haier says. It could be that some brain areas begin communicating with different areas, making the brain’s efforts more streamlined, he says.  
Among the regions showing gray matter increases were portions of the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain thought to be important for planning complex movements and integrating information from the senses.

Haier and colleagues don’t know whether these Tetris-induced brain changes have any real benefits in tasks like memory, spatial reasoning and problem-solving ability. “We know Tetris changes the brain,” Haier says. “We don’t know if it’s good for you.”          

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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