Like most parents, Michelle Duffy wants her two teenage sons to be healthy, to work hard in school, and cultivate friendships. And, like many parents in this day and age, she worries quite a bit about how much time they spend playing video games.
“Both my sons get on the XBox every day for about an hour a day,” she says. “It is my one son’s hands-down favorite thing to do—if I didn’t limit his time to that hour, he’d happily play all day.”
Duffy worries that too much video gaming will harm her kids, especially when it comes to perceiving and interacting with situations in the real world. She also has fears that video gaming, with its fast pace and instant feedback, may be addictive. While the results of psychological studies looking at the effects of frequent and violent gaming have been mixed, two new studies demonstrate that playing video games can make specific changes to the brain.
Frequency and the striatum
The American Association of Pediatrics recommends that parents permit their kids only one to two hours of "screen time" per day—a limit that includes television, movies, video games, and Internet. Despite that advice, many parents will admit that their children spend much more time “plugged in.” A consortium of European researchers including Simone Kühn, from Belgium’s Ghent University, and Jürgen Gallinat from Germany’s Charité Medicine, wanted to see if frequent video gaming resulted in any particular changes to the brain.
The group examined the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans of 154 14-year-old boys and girls. When they compared the brains of frequent gamers (defined as those who played video games more than 9 hours per week) to moderate gamers they discovered that the first group showed larger volume in the left striatum, a brain area involved in risk and reward processing. In addition, the frequent gamers showed more activity in the ventral striatum when losing money during a gambling task. They published their results in the Nov. 15, 2011, issue of Translational Psychiatry.
“This could explain a potential mechanism that makes people play more,” says Kühn. “Even when facing losses, the reward center of the brain is activated—suggesting a potential mechanism for non-substance addictions.”
Kühn is quick to point out that there is a chicken-and-egg problem with the results: She cannot say with certainty if a larger striatum leads teenagers to play more games, or if playing more games results in a larger striatum. She and her colleagues plan to look at the question in more detail in future studies. But despite this, Wolfram Schultz, a pioneer in reward processing research, called the result significant.
“While you can’t say that this increase in volume or activity suggests that people are addicted, it would seem the striatum is more engaged in these people who play more video games,” he says. “It may be changing how they perceive the rewarding aspects of the game. That is very interesting.”
Violence and the frontal lobe
Several behavioral studies suggest that exposure to violent video games can impair judgment and increase aggression in teenagers. Preliminary brain imaging results presented by Indiana University School of Medicine at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America in November suggest that not only can violent video games directly alter brain activity but can do so in as little as one week.
Yang Wang and colleagues compared 22 young men, aged 18 to 29 years, who had little to no experience with violent video games. Half the participants played a shooting game for 10 hours over the next week and then not at all during the second week. The second group played no video games at all. Wang and colleagues used fMRI scanning at the start of the study, after week 1, and then again after week 2 to measure cerebral blood flow as participants completed both an emotional interference and a cognitive inhibition task. They found less activation in the left inferior frontal lobe and in the anterior cingulate cortex, areas implicated in emotional regulation and aggressive behavior, in those who had played the 10 hours of violent video games. Furthermore, this pattern of reduced activity persevered after the second week despite the fact that the gaming group had stopped playing the violent game.
“These results are very preliminary but very important,” says Wang. “There are several studies that suggest violent video games can lead to more aggressive behavior but these data are the first to show that the violent game play is changing something in the brain that may underlie those behavioral changes.”
In July 2009, Douglas Gentile, a Iowa State University researcher who studies the effects of video gaming and other media on children and adults, penned a Cerebrum article entitled, “Video Games Affect the Brain—for Better and Worse”. In the piece, he argued that video gaming can have both negative and positive consequences—and that whether those outcomes are considered good or bad often depends on who is funding the study. These new neuroimaging studies, he argues, only make his conclusions in that piece stronger.
“We’ve known for some time that anything you do can make changes to your brain. The brain changes and you know that learning is happening,” he says. “So the fact that we see changes in the brain in these studies is not surprising. But it doesn’t necessarily mean all that much. We’re still years away from being able to really link these changes in the brain directly to changes in behavior.”
While Gentile suggests asking if video games are “good” or “bad” is not a valuable exercise at this point, he says that games have bigger effects than we once imagined. And he thinks parents like Duffy are doing the right thing by limiting their children’s gaming time.
“Games are natural teachers. They do many of the same things that an excellent teacher does. And that kind of teaching ability has a lot of power,” he says. “We need to treat that power with respect, to both maximize the benefits and minimize the harms. Limiting both the amount and the content is the best way we have to do that right now.”