Researchers debate gaming’s effects on the brain

From staff and wire reports
January 11th, 2012

Researchers are at odds when it comes to video games' educational benefits.

A U.K. study that compared the brains of teenage video gamers found that those who played video games frequently have more gray matter in the area of the brain known to be associated with rewards and decision-making, which raises the question of whether gaming is related to changes in the brain.

Researchers looked for differences in the size of an area of the brain called the ventral striatum, known to be associated with reward and decision-making. This area of the brain is also associated with emotional and motivational aspects of behavior. In particular, it can release a ‘feel-good chemical’ when presented with potential reward situations, such as the opportunity to gain money.

Researchers compared the brain structure and function of 154 healthy 14-year-olds recruited from secondary schools in Germany as part of a larger European study called the IMAGEN project. This sample contained 72 boys and 82 girls and the study assessed their computer gaming activity over a week-long period.

Researchers scanned participants’ brains using MRI and looked at the amount of two components of the nervous system: gray matter and white matter. Gray matter is mostly brain cell bodies, while white matter mainly consists of the brain cell connections that link the gray matter together.

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The teenagers completed tasks to assess reward anticipation and reward feedback behavior while their brains were scanned using a special functional MRI (fMRI) scanner. The fMRI measures small changes in blood flow to parts of the brain. This gives an indication of the areas of the brain that are active during the task.

The standard MRI scans showed the left ventral striatum of frequent gamers contained significantly more gray matter than infrequent gamers. No differences were found in other brain regions or for white matter.

The researchers then linked the volume of gray matter in this brain region to performance on a task and found that adolescents with higher gray matter volume (the frequent gamers) were faster at making decisions. They also found that frequent gamers demonstrated higher levels of brain activity on fMRI than infrequent gamers when they lost during the tasks assessing reward anticipation and reward feedback.

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4 Responses to “Researchers debate gaming’s effects on the brain”

The perception of computers, the Internet, children, learning and time have all been in question for many years. Having played video games since the birth of the Apple IIE and the Commodore 64 all the way to the current IPhone 4, I have been able to really understand the challenges, frustrations, time consumption, and victorious moments that gaming provides. Not only are video games becoming more advanced, but they are now providing exercise, times of enjoyment, and functional brain activity. As this article points out, decision-making skills are being honed. Isn’t this just an opportunity for game designers to create more games that delve deeper into brain activity so that gamers of all ages are stimulated to perceive, conceptualize, select, demonstrate, think critically, and collaborate productively? Education doesn’t just happen in the confines of a school. With 2 Masters under my belt and a terrific career in educating, I really can appreciate the prospect of deeper learning especially when I didn’t have to develop and plan it.

January 13, 2012

Very interesting article. I just completed a course in graduate school called “Cognition and Computers”. We spoke heavely about video games and the benefits that it has on student engagement and increasing cognitive abilities. This article was very interesting.