A new study from the University of Montreal in Quebec, Canada claims that playing action games can cause parts of the brain to atrophy, possibly leading to permanent damage and brain disease. Associate professor of psychology Greg West ran a full neuro-imaging study scanning the brains of “habitual” action/shooter game players and non-game players, followed by two longitudinal studies. The results showed that certain game players had less grey matter in the hippocampus portion of the brain, potentially contributing to issues with memory, spatial awareness, or even emotional regulation.
Part of West’s study was explained in detail. About 100 people were brought in over time to play two sorts of video games, each for 90 hours. The first subset of games, shooters like Call of Duty, Killzone, and Borderlands, led to measurable atrophy of the hippocampus, while the second subset of games, 3D games like Super Mario, actually led to grey matter growth in the hippocampus. For the differences to be so evident after a small amount of time playing games is potentially startling and worrying.
While time spent playing 3D games showed growth in all participants, the atrophy while playing shooters only affected a portion of players. The difference was between people who, as West describes, are “spatial learners” vs. “reward learners.” Understanding the difference requires going back to another study regarding how video games effect our brains.
Recent research has shown that video games stimulate a part of the brain called the caudate nucleus, the part that works as a sort of reward system for the brain. It helps us form habits, do things like ride a bike, get home from work when we’re exhausted, and tells us when to eat and drink. It’s like the brain’s muscle memory, and in practice it’s meant to counterbalance the hippocampus. Some people rely on the caudate nucleus for learning (i.e. “reward learning”) as opposed to using the hippocampus for “spatial learning.”
West’s study shows that those who rely on reward learning when playing action games stop or slow the use of the hippocampus, and over time, this lack of use leads to atrophy. Spatial learners, however, still rely on the hippocampus when playing action games and thus do not experience the atrophy.
As noted in West’s study, the consequences of the study are not permanent but can lead to permanent problems. Neurons and grey matter in the hippocampus regrow regularly, but atrophy in the hippocampus has been long associated with serious illness and disease including depression, PTSD and Alzheimer’s. Considering the prevalence of these issues in modern society, and that they often grow worse with age, West’s study may be the canary for a significant problem for the first generation of aging game players.
Additional research is always recommended and encouraged, and considering West’s findings, should be necessary considering how big the gaming industry is and how many young game players there are. Concluding West’s study, he has the following recommendation:
“If action video games lead to decreases in grey matter in the hippocampus [of young adults], caution should be exerted when encouraging their use… [by] children, young adults and older adults to promote cognitive skills such as visual short-term memory and visual attention.”
A little more Mario in your gaming diet might be just what the doctor ordered.
Source: UdeM Nouvelles