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This is your brain, on video games

Kids playing video games

A new study shows that while video game players (VGPs) exhibit more efficient visual attention abilities, they are also much more likely to use navigation strategies that rely on the brain’s reward system (the caudate nucleus) and not the brain’s spatial memory system (the hippocampus). Past research has shown that people who use caudate nucleus-dependent navigation strategies have decreased grey matter and lower functional brain activity in the hippocampus.

Video gamers now spend a collective three billion hours per week in front of their screens. In fact, it is estimated that the average young person will have spent some 10,000 hours gaming by the time they are 21. The effects of intense video gaming on the brain are only beginning to be understood.

The study was conducted among a group of adult gamers who were spending at least six hours per week on this activity.

“For more than a decade now, research has demonstrated that action video game players display more efficient visual attention abilities, and our current study has once again confirmed this notion,” says first author Dr. Gregory West.

“However, we also found that gamers rely on the caudate-nucleus to a greater degree than non-gamers. Past research has shown that people who rely on caudate nucleus-dependent strategies have lower grey matter and functional brain activity in the hippocampus.”

“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.”

Because past research has shown video games as having positive effects on attention, it is important for future research to confirm that gaming does not have a negative effect on the hippocampus. Future research using neuroimaging will be necessary to further qualify our current findings, and these studies should investigate the direct effects of specific video games on the integrity of the reward system and hippocampus.

West, G., Drisdelle, B., Konishi, K., Jackson, J., Jolicoeur, P., & Bohbot, V. (2015). Habitual action video game playing is associated with caudate nucleus-dependent navigational strategies Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 282 (1808), 20142952-20142952 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2014.2952

4 responses

  1. Bruno Campello de Souza

    One simple explanation could be that those with lower grey matter and functional brain activity in the hippocampus compensate by shifting to a more intensive use of the caudate-nucleus. The use of caudate-nucleus itself could simply be a more neurologically efficient way to process navigational information, leading to more efficient visual attention abilities. In this scenario, the brain patterns of gamers could simply reflect a superior form of thinking. Indeed, there are numerous studies associating video game usage to cognitive benefits that go far beyond visual-spatial perception, such as IQ, scholastic learning, logical-numerical abilities, creativity, sociability, and more.

    Of course, such an explanation does not grab nearly as many headlines as suggesting that video games hurt your brain. Neither does it fall into collective and unfounded technophobic fears.

    It is quite true that “the effects of intense video gaming on the brain are only beginning to be understood”, however, the same could be said for the effects of literacy, schooling, soda pop consumption, smoking, and practically anything else. There is still far too much that is not known regarding brain function.


    May 24, 2015 at 4:22 pm

    • Thank you for taking time to share your take on the paper. While I don’t think we need to start worrying about videogame play quite yet (I mean how many of us are spending most of our time behind a computer screen thinking that has no effect?), I think that your explanation is just as valid as any other reason for the changes. I would honestly think that some of these changes would be welcome and ironically enough (given the lack of evidence one way or another) shows that brain training is potentially a real thing in the right contexts. Again thank you, I always appreciate a good comment that gets me thinking.


      May 25, 2015 at 11:16 am

  2. ano

    Apologies, I cannot read the full article. But from the parts I can read, it looks like they are studying the brain directly. Is there some reason they could not directly measure whether participants “have lower grey matter and functional brain activity in the hippocampus” between the two groups?

    Looks like some habitual behavior (vgp) being associated with some problem solving strategy involving less activity in a certain brain area being associated with a certain brain structure and activity, finally being associated to an increased risk of some diseases. To me this seems to be a really tenuous association, wondering why they didn’t directly measure what they were interested in (as evinced by this logic’s prominent place in the abstract).

    I had wondered along similar lines to Bruno Campello de Souza’s comment.


    May 26, 2015 at 9:58 am

    • Apologies for taking so long to reply! I would think that the only way to find a relationship between two things (in this case videogames and neurological disorders) you need to start with a group that has the behavior your are interested in and see if they have a higher rate than the control (in this case if we think mental illness can be caused by video games, we would look at gamers instead of the mentally ill). Honestly it is a weak link and while I don’t have the study in front of me, I think they acknowledge this, but I think the logic is you have to start somewhere.

      I can take a look at it later for you if you would like and see exactly what they say in the study, but I also feel like I may not be understanding your question. If that is the case, let me know and I’ll try to find you an answer.


      May 31, 2015 at 3:03 pm

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