Video games have long been a source of controversy in neuroscience and other research work. Studies on players and the impact games can have are plentiful, but what there isn’t a lot of is agreement. Some say they help with focus and memory. Other studies say there is desensitization to violence when too many hours are spent killing off robots and assassinating bad guys. The latest research, from the Universite de Montreal however, was a bit more specific. A team there looked at the effects of first person shooter (FPS) games on brain anatomy.
A key area in the brain, the hippocampus, is responsible for memory, facial recognition, and processing short-term memory into long-term memory. Without memories being stored long-term in the brain, it’s nearly impossible to learn anything, since the memories don’t “stick” if not processed correctly. Brain scans of players that spent a lot of time using FPS games had less gray matter in the hippocampal area of the brain than those who did not play the games.
Greg West the lead author of the research, which was published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, is an associate professor of psychology at UdeM and explained, “Video games have been shown to benefit certain cognitive systems in the brain, mainly related to visual attention and short-term memory. But there is also behavioral evidence that there might be a cost to that, in terms of the impact on the hippocampus. That's why we decided to do a full neuro-imaging study, scanning the brains of habitual players of action video games and comparing them to non-players, and what we saw was less gray matter in the hippocampus of habitual players. We then followed that up with two longitudinal studies to establish causality, and we found that it was indeed the gaming that led to changes in the brain." Less gray matter in the hippocampus is known to raise the risk of getting dementia, Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases."
The hippocampus has two main functions. It’s involved in spatial memory, which is how we know where we are in our environment and how to find our way home. Episodic memory is also part of the function of the hippocampus, and this allows the brain to recall something learned at an earlier time. The reason the video games impact this part of the brain is much like how a seesaw works. Video games stimulate the caudate nucleus of the brain, the reward area, which is also linked to remembering how to perform certain actions and find our way around. When this area of the brain is heavily stimulated the hippocampus is somewhat underused or neglected, and it begins to atrophy. Much like muscles, rest leads to rust, even in the brain.
The study was conducted with 100 volunteers, half men, half women. Since some people are hardwired to learn via their spatial sense (the hippocampus) and some others seem to learn via response and the caudate nucleus, the groups were split into spatial learners (more hippocampal activity) and response learners (more caudate nucleus activity.) The players were then asked to play FPS games like Call of Duty, Killzone and Borderlands 2 for a total of 90 hours over ten weeks. Those who were response learners showed less gray matter than what they started with at the beginning of the study.
There was some good news, however. When the gaming platform was in 3D, all of the players showed an increase in hippocampal gray matter. This is believed to be because, in 3D, players must use a strategy of landmarks to learn where to navigate in the game environment, which means spatial learning must be used. This stimulates the hippocampus whereas response learning, which is more commonly used in action games that are not 3D, leaves the hippocampus out of the process.
The video below has more information on the study, including how better games could be engineered to improve memory and brain function, regardless of how the player learns. Check it out.