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Essential Science: How playing video games changes the brain

Does playing video games alter the brain and, if so, does this make the brain stronger or weaker? These are questions that have been discussed across different scientific disciplines, from neuroscientists to sociologists.

The new research focuses on brain strengthening assumptions that have been attributed to video games, especially in relation to attention and visuospatial skills. However, the findings also look at how the reward center of the brain is also altered in terms of feeding addiction.

The new findings come from a joint study between the Cognitive NeuroLab, Faculty of Health Sciences, Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, Barcelona and the Laboratory for Neuropsychiatry and Neuromodulation, Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. The researchers were interested in how a common form of entertainment impacts upon our brains and behavior.

The researchers also wanted to take a scientific approach to some of the perceptions about gamers in the media. Here lead researcher Dr. Marc Palaus states: “Games have sometimes been praised or demonized, often without real data backing up those claims. Moreover, gaming is a popular activity, so everyone seems to have strong opinions on the topic.”

The types of questions explored in the research are of importance given how widespread video game playing is in society. The mean age of gamers, for example, has been increasing, and was measured at around 35 years of age. Different technologies also increase access to video games. While committed gamers play on desktop computers or consoles, more casual gamers can access games via smartphones and tablets.

To achieve this the researchers embarked on a process of collating, compiling and reviewing every major study conducted into video gaming in recent years. This consisted of examining 116 scientific studies. Of these items of research, some 22 looked at structural changes in the brain and 100 considered at changes in brain functionality and/or behavior (some of the studies looked at both aspects).

The primary findings from the review are:

Playing video games affects a person’s attention. Primarily, gamers show improvements in areas like sustained attention or selective attention. The brain regions involved in attention are more efficient in gamers and also require less activation to sustain attention on demanding tasks.

A second finding was that video games can increase the size and efficiency of brain regions related to visuospatial skills. Here the right hippocampus was found to be larger with long-term gamers. The hippocampus the region that regulates emotions. The hippocampus is associated mainly with memory, in particular long-term memory.

The third finding relates to addiction. This kind of addiction is called “Internet gaming disorder.” The researchers demonstrated functional and structural changes in the neural reward system in gaming addicts. The observed neural changes are similar to those seen in other addictive disorders.

The researchers will use the work further to consider the complexities and both the positive (visual and motor skills) and negative aspects (risk of addiction) of gaming.

The research is published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. The research paper is titled “Neural Basis of Video Gaming: A Systematic Review.”

Essential Science

This article is part of Digital Journal’s regular Essential Science columns. Each week Tim Sandle explores a topical and important scientific issue. Last week we reviewed how scientists have used 3D printing technology to develop a super-strong form of cement. This is based on the addition of an ingredient that becomes stronger the more pressure that is applied to it

The week before we reviewed how researcher have begun to use new technologies to help quantify the vast and curious fossil finds that are stored, and in some cases remained untouched for decades, on museum shelves.

Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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