A research article published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B studied the brains of habitual video gamers who spend at least 6 hours per week playing video games. The study finds that although video gamers may exhibit more efficient visual attention abilities, they are likely to use navigational strategies that rely on the brain’s reward system (caudate nucleus system), rather than the spatial memory system (hippocampus). Habitual video game playing may result in decreased hippocampus gray matter. Reduced hippocampal integrity is also observed in neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s Disease.
Caudate nucleus system: Involved in voluntary movement, motor processes, memory, learning, sensory input, part of the “reward” system, also involved in addiction.
Hippocampus: Involved in spatial navigation, associated with both short- and long-term memory.
According to the video game industry statistics, the industry generates close to $10 billion in revenue annually. In the USA, 67% of households play video games. The collective time spent by video gamers in front of their screens is reported to be three billion hours per week. The average age of a video gamer is understood to be 34 years and by that time, he/she has already been playing for about 12 years.
The human brain is intriguing and is being studied extensively to understand its function. Studies to identify the effects of video gaming on the brain are relatively new. With respect to video games, it has been reported that:
- Habitual video gamers exhibit more visual attention abilities.
- People who use the caudate nucleus system for navigation have diminished gray matter and hippocampal activity.
In the study being discussed here, 26 video game players and 33 non-players participated. The participants were required to wear skull caps, which recorded their eye movements and brain waves during testing. They were tested on the 4-on-8 virtual maze and a visual attention event-related potential (ERP) task (“dual solution task”-a test in which an individual has to accomplish two tasks simultaneously). The major findings from this study are:
Improved visual attention abilities of habitual video gamers are better than non-gamers, as was previously reported by other studies
- Video gamers employ navigation strategies that are associated with the caudate nucleus to a greater degree than non-gamers
- Such individuals may have a reduced functional activity of the hippocampus
The findings of this study are significant because the study connects two separate observations previously reported to arrive at a “cause and effect” observation.
The lead author of the publication, Dr. Gregory West, Assistant Professor at the Université de Montréal, while talking about the impact of this study, tells Douglas Mental Health University Institute News, “….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.”
The current study focused on navigational skills in a small number of participants for a short duration and did not test their memory or skills associated with thinking or decision making in the long-term. Additionally, there are also reports of positive effects of “action video games” on the brain. Thus, while the results are definitely suggestive, these types of studies need to be extended further with more subjects to represent varied populations, to conclusively prove the relationship between certain types of video game and caudate nucleus or hippocampus functions.
Written by Mangala Sarkar Ph.D.