Even among the healthiest people, aging takes a toll on the brain – changing and often decreasing our cognitive capabilities. Science fiction writers have long imagined ways to maintain and enhance cognition in the face of aging, disease, or otherwise. Increasingly, scientists are investigating ways to make that happen. One of those scientists – Adam Gazzaley of the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) – is at the forefront of using video games in combination with other technologies to boost brain function.
Delivering the keynote address (which is free and open to the public) at the CNS annual conference in San Francisco this March, Gazzaley spoke with CNS about how he became interested in neuroscience and video games and his view of the future of brain health, as well as dished insider tips for exploring San Francisco.
CNS: How and why did you become interested in neuroscience?
Gazzaley: I wanted to be a scientist since I was a child, a dream fueled by incessant science fiction reading and watching Cosmos. But it wasn’t until I was an undergrad that the brain entered my life. I was taking a class called History of the Future (1987) and the prof described a potential future with nanotech in our brains. Something clicked; I went immediately to the library and took out two dozen books on neuroscience and never gave a second thought of doing anything else.
CNS: What got you interested in using video games specifically?
Gazzaley: Several years after I started my faculty gig at UCSF, I became frustrated by solely studying and reporting the “bad news” on the impact of aging on our brains. I wanted to do something positive to help us age better in terms of maintaining, or even enhancing, our cognitive abilities. As a neurologist, I was well aware that our current drugs did not have much of value in this domain, and my own research confirmed this. I latched on to the idea of using powerful experiences to harness our brain’s plasticity to optimize its function. Creating video games seemed the ideal approach to pursue to accomplish this goal.
I will share a vision of how modern tech may also be used to improve the function of our brains, thus enhancing the quality of our lives. This is a future that I hope to live in…
CNS: What do you most enjoy about scientific conferences like the CNS annual meetings?
Gazzaley: The parties, of course. Kidding. Sort of.
For me, conferences are about exchanging ideas and data that are not yet published, forging collaborations, making new friends and colleagues, and catching up with old ones.
CNS: Any advice for first-time attendees to the CNS meeting?
Gazzaley: Absorb it all with an open mind. And pay careful attention to what viscerally excites you.
CNS: Any talks you are especially excited about seeing?
Gazzaley: Yes, looking forward to seeing the one right before mine: “Big Ideas in Cognitive Neuroscience”
CNS: Best place to grab lunch in San Francisco during the conference?
Gazzaley: Lots of great places in the Ferry Building [note: that is right across from the Hyatt Regency where the conference is taking place]
CNS:Best thing to do in SF while playing hooky from the conference?
Gazzaley: Walk around the Mission; check out Dolores Park if it is nice out. If you have time, visit the Marin headlands (Muir Beach Overlook instantly converted me to a west coaster).
CNS: Sneak-peek at your talk: Can you share a little tease of anything new you’ll be presenting?
Gazzaley: New studies under way at our UCSF Neuroscape that integrate cutting-edge tech (VR, motion capture, video games, physiological recordings) to enhance cognition.
CNS: Your talk is open to the public – what is your pitch to the public to come to your talk? What might they expect and why will it be important to them?
Gazzaley: We are fortunate to live in the tech capital of the world. But the focus of this amazing innovation has long been dominated by entertainment and communication goals. I will share a vision of how modern tech may also be used to improve the function of our brains, thus enhancing the quality of our lives. This is a future that I hope to live in, and I will strive to make it fun for you to learn about it. You can get a preview of what we are up to at our new center at UCSF by visiting Neuroscape.ucsf.edu
-Lisa M.P. Munoz
Gazzaley’s new book is: The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World