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.
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.
The cross-sectional study carried out by a large collaboration of researchers from European and Canadian universities, funded by the European Community’s Sixth Framework program, the U.K. Department of Health, and a Medical Research Centre program grant, used a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner to compare the brain structure of 14-year-olds who were categorized as frequent or infrequent gamers.
The researchers say that the larger volume and activity in the left ventral striatum is in line with the theory that the reward system from this region of the brain in frequent gamers may be similar to that at work in excessive gamblers. They also point out that it is not clear whether the differences in the size of the area of the brain result from frequent gaming or whether they were already present and make a person more likely to become a frequent gamer.
The study was published in the peer-reviewed science journal Translational Psychiatry.
Douglas Gentile, an Iowa State University associate professor of psychology, cites examples of both positive and negative effects from playing video games in an article he coauthored in the December issue of Nature Reviews/Neuroscience.
In the “Brains on video games” article, six experts shed light on the current understanding of the positive and negative ways in which playing video games can affect cognition and behavior. It explains how that knowledge can be harnessed for educational and rehabilitative purposes.
Gentile said the article shows that it’s not simply a “black and white” issue when it comes to how video games affect the brain.
“Six researchers from four different research groups all wrote perspectives for this article — all independent of each other, but focusing on a wide range of issues,” said Gentile, who runs the Media Research Lab at Iowa State. “What is most valuable is that it cites research that video games can contribute to real problems, but also can have some real benefits.”
Beneficial effects of video games
In the article, Gentile cites research demonstrating that video games can have beneficial effects. One study by University of Rochester, N.Y., researchers Daphne Bavelier and C. Shawn Green on the first-person shooter game “Unreal Tournament” found that players improved perceptual and attention skills by playing that game.
Although fewer studies have examined the positive effects of video gaming on social behavior, Gentile collaborated on experimental studies in the U.S., Japan, and Singapore, which found that playing pro-social games led to more subsequent “helping” behavior in users. In one longitudinal study, the researchers found that children who played more pro-social games early in the school year demonstrated increased helpful behaviors later in the school year.
“If content is chosen wisely, video games can actually enhance some skills,” Gentile said. “But overall, the research has demonstrated that they’re far more powerful teaching tools than we imagined. But the power can be both good and bad.”
He reports that there aren’t many studies on how playing video games affects attention needed in the classroom. But those that exist–including two conducted at Iowa State–suggest that there is a relation between video gaming and attention problems in school.
He contends that games offer significant promise for education, particularly because they have been found to be such effective teaching tools. But while studies of educational software demonstrate that children do learn from playing educational games, Gentile says that the amount of money spent on educational games is a tiny fraction of the amount spent on a commercial entertainment game. “Therefore,” he wrote, “most educational games aren’t as interesting, fun, or good as even a mediocre commercial game.”
Given all the different effects of video games on the brain cited in the article, Gentile is hopeful it might reduce some dichotomous thinking in the field of video game research.
“Playing video games is neither good nor bad,” he concluded. “Existing research shows that they are powerful teaching tools, and therefore we need to harness that potential, aiming to maximize the benefits while minimizing the potential harms.”
What the critics say
Video games won’t necessarily improve kids’ grades, concentration, driving skills, or other cognitive abilities, one group of psychologists says.
Some researchers also say they’ve found video games such as current top-seller “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3” won’t damage players’ brains or cause them to do real violence.
Those relatively recent findings conflict with other studies on both the positive and negative potential of gaming, but one thing experts on all sides tend to agree about is that the debate and their research is far from over.
“Play these games because they are fun and you enjoy doing them, and let’s kind of wait for more research to suggest whether or not they are actually good for us,” said Florida State University psychologist Walter Boot.
Boot and two colleagues say they have turned up flaws in various studies ascribing cognitive benefits to playing video games and that they they’ve been unable to replicate the results. Boot, Florida State doctoral student Daniel Blakely, and University of Illinois researcher Daniel Simons wrote about their findings in a paper published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology in September 2011.
It “happens to be a rather direct attack about our work,” Bavelier, the University of Rochester researcher, wrote in a Dec. 22 eMail from France, where she is on sabbatical.
Bavelier defended studies she and other scientists have conducted that show a causal link between video game playing and enhanced abilities.
She said it is Boot and his colleagues who have flaws in their work and wrote a point-by-point rebuttal of their paper’s detailed findings. It’s also the only negative position paper aligned against multiple, peer-reviewed studies by “world renowned experts,” she wrote.
“This paper does not present new evidence, or even new analysis it is just an opinionated discussion of existing data,” Bavelier wrote. “Quite simply put, there is not much controversy about the published effects so far.”
December’s edition of the journal Nature Reviews/Neuroscience includes an article on video game research, describing it as being still in its early days. The journal posed several questions to prominent researchers and published their responses.
They include Bavelier, an assistant professor in Rochester’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Science, and University of Minnesota psychologist C. Shawn Green, who submitted joint responses.
They maintained playing action video games “results in a wide range of behavioral benefits, including enhancements in low-level vision, visual attention, speed of processing, and statistical inference.”
Bavelier and Green also wrote there’s no black-and-white answer to the question of whether video games improve cognitive function because there are millions of games and hundreds of genres that can be played on various devices including computers, consoles, and cell phones.
“Simply put, if one wants to know what the effects of video games are, the devil is in the details,” they wrote.
Two more scientists questioned by the journal also cited studies showing positive results. Two others wrote that effects on the brain and behavior are “uncertain” and that studies have not generally showing gaming enhances higher level reasoning.
Duke University cognitive neuroscientist Marty Woldorff said he falls in the middle between Boot and Bavelier. He said some of her findings have been replicated but others have not.
“The jury is still out,” Woldorff said. “This is how science works.”