Is there a link between gaming and neurological disorders?

20 May 2015

A paper published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B today links action video game playing with changes in how people use parts of their brain to solve problems. Structural changes in those parts of the brain have been associated with risk of neurological and psychiatric disorders later in life.

Collectively we spend 3 billion hours every week playing video games and it’s estimated that the average young person will now spend nearly 10,000 hours (more than a year!) of their life gaming by the time they are 21. With such intense exposure to gaming it’s increasingly important to understand the neurological and cognitive effect gaming could have.

Playing action video games has some beneficial impacts - faster response times and larger useful field of vision for example. It’s also associated with activity in parts of the brain that are linked to rewards and habit formation and the type of memory that helps us learn tasks like riding a bike. The scientists, led by Greg West from the University of Montreal, wanted to see if gamers more readily used that part of the brain over other parts to solve problems.

The team tested gamers and non-gamers to see if they used ‘response learning strategies’ or ‘spatial strategies’ to navigate in a virtual reality test. Spatial strategies mean we make a map of landmarks in our brains and where they are in relation to each other to work out where we are. Response learners on the other hand memorise series of left and right turns to make a route from A to B.

In a test with 26 gamers and 33 non gamers the team found that gamers memorised specific routes to navigate the virtual world 80% of the time; twice that of non-gamers who were more reliant on remembering landmarks in the virtual world and only used response learning 42% of the time. 

The team say their results show gamers are using different navigational strategies to non-gamers - but what does that mean for the brain? Response learning strategies use the brain’s striatum instead of the hippocampus which is used for spatial strategies and for the formation of new memories. Previous studies have shown that consistent use of the striatum can lead to an increase in volume in this area and a decrease in grey matter in the hippocampus. Decreased volume in the hippocampus often occurs before the onset of some neurological and psychiatric disorders.

The study doesn’t conclusively show that video-gaming shrinks the hippocampus or that gamers will develop neurological disorders. The team say that imaging of the brain is needed to see if there are structural changes in the brain but that  ‘if action video game players have lower grey matter in the hippocampus, as response learners normally do, then these individuals could be at increased risk of developing neurological and psychiatric disorders during their lifetime’.