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What are the effects of playing video games on the brain?

Playing video games is an extremely popular pastime. If we add up all the hours spent by people who play video games (gaming) each week, it would equal over 3 billion hours. On average it is suggested a teenager can spend nearly 10,000 hours gaming by the time they are 21. So what does this do to the brain?

Researchers from the Universite de Montreal in Canada have undertaken a preliminary study to answer this very question aiming to better understand the impact of this intense exposure on cognitive and neural functioning. They tested the effects of video game playing on fifty-nine healthy young adult participants (average age of 24, 13 of whom were female). They recently published the results in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Participants were split into action gamers (26) and non-action gamers (33) based on a questionnaire they filled out prior to the study. To be considered an action gamer, a participant needed to report a minimum of 6 hours a week of action video game usage during the previous six months.

Gamers were then asked to play two computer games which were developed to be an indirect measure of hippocampus and striatum volume – two areas of the brain important for maintaining brain health. The players also wore skull caps which recorded their brainwaves and eye movements as they negotiated the games.

The researchers found that action gamers were twice as likely to use their caudate nucleus, the brains reward system (80 per cent) during navigation rather than the non-gamers (42.42 per cent) who tended to rely on the brain's spatial memory system, the hippocampus.

Why is this new research important?

Dr Gregory West, Assistant Professor at the Universite de Montreal and lead researcher on the study said that previous research has demonstrated that action video game players display more efficient visual attention abilities, and our current study has once again confirmed this notion.

"However, we also found that gamers rely on the caudate-nucleus to a greater degree than non-gamers. Past research has shown that people who rely on caudate nucleus-dependent strategies have lower grey matter and functional brain activity in the hippocampus.

“This means that people who spend a lot of time playing video games may have reduced hippocampal integrity, which is associated with an increased risk of neurological disorders such as Alzheimer's disease."

Because past research has shown video games as having positive effects on attention, it is important for future research to confirm that gaming does not have a negative effect on the hippocampus.

Future research will use neuroimaging techniques to further qualify these findings, and future studies should investigate the direct effects of specific video games on the integrity of the reward system and hippocampus.

It is important to note however that these results are still preliminary and do not suggest that playing video games will lead to the onset of dementia.

Sources: 

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