A new study seems to suggest that playing certain types of video games, specifically first person shooters like Borderlands, Dead Island, Fallout 3 etc maybe be altering players brains in a way that may ultimately make them more susceptible to Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases.
“People now spend a collective 3 billion hours per week playing video games, and it is estimated that the average young person will now spend nearly 10 000 h gaming by the time they are 21. As video game playing becomes more and more ubiquitous, it is increasingly important to better understand the impact of this intense exposure on cognitive and neural functioning.”
An accompanying press release states that the 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.”
Going on to say
“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.”
A falsehood here should be pointed out, they didn’t actually measure activity in the caudate nucleus, they only looked at a type of behaviour associated with the caudate nucleus in other studies.
Interesting, and perhaps alarming as it may seem, I myself have played through all three of the above games at length, it needs to be stressed that this is only a single small study. There were a total of 59 participants, 26 gamers and 33 non gamers. Importantly, they also didn’t actually directly measure hippocampal or striatal volume in the volunteers, citing only evidence from previous studies.
Daphne Bavelier, (see her 2012 TED talk below) a cognitive neuroscience professor who has undertaken extensive video game research, also expressed her concerns about the paper to Discover Magazine “There is no evidence in the data they present for a causal link,” she says, “but rather quite a chain of inferences from the behavioral results to the conclusions, not only of a decrease in hippocampal volume, but then also of a risk of developing neurological diseases.”
So what about the Alzheimer’s? A short piece in the Guardian by Chris Campbell, a professor of cognitive science at Cardiff University and Pete Etchells, a lecturer in biological psychology at Bath Spa University, sums it up best as a leap of logic with no evidence that video games cause or lead to Alzheimer’s.
As always, though, more studies, hopefully of a more rigorous nature, will need to be done to see what effects video games have both on the developing and the aging brain.
The paper can be found here (pay walled): Habitual action video game playing is associated with caudate nucleus-dependent navigational strategies