The new study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B shows that while video game players 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.”
It has been demonstrated that healthy young participants who employ spatial strategies specifically show increased activity and grey matter in the hippocampus. Response learners, by contrast, show increased activity and grey matter in the caudate nucleus and decreased grey matter and activity in the hippocampus. The current data suggests that the high rate of response strategy use in action video game players compared with non video game players could also indicate a reduction in hippocampus integrity in action video game players. This possibility needs further research as reduced grey matter in the hippocampus has been associated with an increased risk for numerous neurological and psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and Alzheimer’s disease, and cognitive deficits in normal ageing and non-hippocampus-dependent response strategies are associated with addiction.
In addition to promoting habit formation and task perceptual–motor task efficiency, response learning is also related to various forms of impulsivity and sensation-seeking behaviours and has been shown to be associated with cue sensitivity mediated within the striatum. Further, cue sensitivity and substance abuse are both associated with increased striatal grey matter. Recent evidence has shown that response learners show greater levels of substance abuse, such as higher lifetime use of tobacco, greater cannabis and double the alcohol use, relative to spatial learners. In a separate study, it was also demonstrated that, in people who engage in higher levels of video game playing, there was a significant correlation between time playing video games and alcohol use, as well as Internet addiction. As action video game players have larger striatal volume and playing video games is associated with increased striatal activity and engagement in other sensation-seeking activities
Time spent playing certain action video games is associated with entorhinal cortex atrophy and this kind of effect during childhood could possibly alter medial temporal lobe development. If this is the case, children exposed to action video games during development could adopt response learning strategies even if they were not response learners to begin with. In other words, engaging with action video games may promote the striatum during development and thus lead to increased use of response strategies.
In summary, the research results suggest that while action video game players show more efficient visual attention abilities, they are also much more likely to rely on response strategies that are associated with increased grey matter and activity of the caudate nucleus. And video game playing also seems to reduce gray matter in the hippocampus.
It is important for future research to confirm that gaming does not have a negative effect on the hippocampus. If video game playing in encouraging response learning strategies that mold the brain in such a way makes people more prone to depression, addiction and Alzheimer’s disease hopefully awareness of this will be spread and more studies will be done.