Playing ‘brain-centric’ video games before surgery can speed up recovery, cut risk of delirium

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Playing video games which give your brain a workout before major surgery helps speed up recovery, according to a new study. Researchers say keeping the mind active and challenged with digital brain exercises — called “neurobics” — reduces the risk of suffering from delirium after an operation.

Doctors have embraced prehabilitation before major surgery, advising patients to exercise and maintain a healthy diet for example. But none of these techniques address postoperative delirium. The condition can slow down recovery, lead to longer hospital stays and even increase the risk of death, especially among older patients.

The study out of The Ohio State University shows that playing brain games for just an hour a day in the run up to a major surgery could reduce the risk of postoperative delirium by more than 60 percent.

“Essentially, your brain can be prepared for surgery, just as the body can, by keeping your mind active and challenged,” says study author Dr. Michelle Humeidan, of Ohio State College of Medicine Wexner Medical College, in a statement. “Patients who practiced neurobics were 40 per cent less likely to experience postoperative delirium than those who did not, and the results improved the more hours they played.”

How brain games significantly lower risk of delirium after surgery

Electronic tablets loaded with a brain game application were given to 268 patients over the age of 60 who were scheduled to have a major surgery, requiring general anaesthetic. Participants were asked to play the brain game for an hour a day before their surgery. The game is designed to exercise memory, speed, attention, flexibility, and problem-solving abilities.

“Not all patients played the games as much as we asked, but those who played any at all saw some benefit,” says Humeidan.

Those who played between five and ten hours before their surgery were 50 percent less likely to suffer from post-surgery delirium, the study shows. Participants who exercised their brains for 10 hours or more reduced their chances of delirium by 61 percent.

Delirium is a common condition which affects 7 million hospitalized Americans each year and cast last for months.

“Our intervention lowered delirium risk in patients who were at least minimally compliant,” says co-author Sergio Bergese, a professor at Stony Brook University. “The ideal activities, timing, and effective dose for cognitive exercise-based interventions to decrease postoperative delirium risk and burden need further study.”

Future of neurobics

How exactly these games impact the brain’s processes and how often patients should practice neurobics to reap the full benefits is next on the research agenda.

“Using the app was ideal for this study because we could easily track how long and how often patients were playing,” says Humeidan. “But things like reading the newspaper, doing crossword puzzles or anything you enjoy to challenge your mind for an hour each day may improve your mental fitness and help prevent delirium as well.”

The findings are published in the journal JAMA Surgery.

Story by SWNS reporter Tom Campbell