MAY 21, 2015 5:15 PM PDT

Too much video gaming could put brain on course for Alzheimer's

WRITTEN BY: Will Hector
We are in some ways in the infancy of understanding the impact on the brain of prolonged exposure to video game playing. In its most recent edition, the handbook of the American Psychiatric Association-the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders- has listed Internet Gaming Disorder as a potential affliction that warrants further study.

While it admits more research is needed to draw a firmer conclusion, a new study links video gaming with Alzheimer's disease. The study found a decrease in integrity in the hippocampus when subjects spent too much time with video games. The linkage to Alzheimer's comes when considering those with the disease demonstrate similar limits in the hippocampus.

The study is the result of a collaborative effort by researchers from McGill University, Université de Montréal, and the Douglas Mental Health University Institute, and was published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The subjects for the study were adults who spend at least six hours per week playing active video games that require the player to navigate an environment. This would fall under the virtual reality category of gaming.

For a dozen years or so, research has shown that players engaging in this type of action video game demonstrate greater efficiency in their visual attention abilities. Co-author Gregory West said his study confirms this observation.

West added: "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."

The caudate nucleus is one of three main structures of the basil ganglia, which on the whole is responsible for sensorimotor coordination and initiation. The caudate nucleus supports successful goal-oriented action and is implicated in such varying behaviors as sleep, social behavior, reward, voluntary movement, and memory.

The hippocampus, on the other hand, is the brain's spatial memory system. The study draws on past research demonstrating that when the caudate nucleus is primary in navigation, there's a decrease in gray matter and a lowering of hippocampal activity. When Alzheimer's disease strikes, the hippocampus is one of the first brain regions to be damaged.

Video gaming has become so popular so quickly, the brain research is bound to be lagging. The average child now will spend an estimated ten thousand hours playing video games by the time he or she turns 21. This estimate, of course, is likely to rise.

There has been research showing positive correlation to attentiveness from playing video games, but even a potential diminishing of hippocampal functioning should be taken seriously. The study notes that further neuroimaging will be necessary to investigate the direct effects of specific video games on the integrity of the reward system and the hippocampus.

One of the problems with linking medical or psychological features with behaviors is that there might be a reverse correlation between the two. With gaming addiction, for example, it isn't difficult to imagine that someone turning to gaming for status or to shut out real-world issues could be more prone to depression or anxiety than someone playing for entertainment. One would do well to take a wider view when making a determination about playing video games.

Follow Will Hector on Twitter: @WriterWithHeart

(Sources: Science Daily; Psychology Today; Wikipedia)
About the Author
  • Will Hector practices psychotherapy at Heart in Balance Counseling Center in Oakland, California. He has substantial training in Attachment Theory, Hakomi Body-Centered Psychotherapy, Psycho-Physical Therapy, and Formative Psychology. To learn more about his practice, click here:
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