Brain Scans Of Compulsive Gamers’ Show They Are Wired Differently

A latest study shows that the brains of compulsive video gamers are wired differently from the norm. Chronic video game play is linked with hyperconnectivity between several pairs of brain networks. Some of the changes are expected to help game players respond to new information.

In a study conducted at the University of Utah, brain scans were performed on about 100 boys, aged 10 to 19, who had sought treatment for what is termed Internet gaming disorder – the condition has been listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as needing further research. It usually involves gamers who give up eating and sleeping in order to keep playing. For comparison, similar scans were made of about 80 boys who did not have the disorder to see how the neural activities matched up.

The MRI scans found certain brain networks that process vision or hearing are more likely to have enhanced coordination to the so-called salience network. The job of the salience network is to focus attention on important events, poising that person to take action. In everyday life, it could be stepping out of the way of an approaching car; in the video game world it could mean dodging a hail of digital bullets.

“Hyperconnectivity between these brain networks could lead to a more robust ability to direct attention toward targets, and to recognise novel information in the environment,” said senior author Jeffrey Anderson, M.D., Ph.D.,associate professor of neuroradiology at the University of Utah School of Medicine. “The changes could essentially help someone to think more efficiently.”

Hyperconnectivity was found in areas of the brain involved in hearing, vision and movement, the researchers say.

“The changes could essentially help someone to think more efficiently,” Anderson says.

Increased connectivity between two particular brain regions — the temporoparietal junction and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex — is sometimes seen in people with neuropsychiatric conditions such as autism, Down’s syndrome and schizophrenia, and also found in people with poor impulse control, the researchers say.

“Having these networks be too connected may increase distractibility,” says Anderson.

At this point it’s not known whether persistent video gaming causes rewiring of the brain, or whether people who are wired differently are drawn to video games. To get a clear picture of the long-term effects of excessive video gaming on the mind, further research and performance tests are necessary.

“Most of the differences we see could be considered beneficial,” says Anderson. “However the good changes could be inseparable from problems that come with them.”

The participants in the study were all from South Korea, where video game playing is a widespread social activity, to a degree not seen in the United States.

The new research is the most comprehensive study yet of the differences in the brains of compulsive video gamers, according to Doug Hyun Han, a researcher at Chung-Ang University in Seoul who is also an adjunct associate professor at the University of Utah School of Medicine. The research looks at how this part of our digital lifestyles can affect our physical and mental health in both positive and negative ways.

The South Korean government supported the work as part of an effort to help identify and treat video addiction, a serious problem in that country, the researchers said.

The team analyzed activity in 25 pairs of brain regions, 300 combinations in all. Specifically, boys with Internet gaming disorder had statistically significant, functional connections between the following pairs of brain regions:

– Auditory cortex (hearing) – motor cortex (movement)
– Auditory cortex (hearing) – supplementary motor cortices (movement)
– Auditory cortex (hearing) – anterior cingulate (salience network)
– Frontal eye field (vision) – anterior cingulate (salience network)
– Frontal eye field (vision) – anterior insula (salience network)
– Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex – temporoparietal junction

The findings have been published online in the journal ‘Addiction Biology’ on December 22, 2015.

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