Playing action video games may be bad for your brain, study finds
Montreal researchers find 1st link between shooter games, loss of grey matter
By Stephen Smith, CBC News Posted: Aug 07, 2017 7:00 PM ET Last Updated: Aug 08, 2017 8:16 PM ET
Playing games like this one, Call of Duty: Ghosts, could increase the risk of depression and other neuropsychiatric disorders because of reduced grey matter in the hippocampus, a Montreal study has found. (Activision)
Playing first-person shooter video games causes some users to lose grey matter in a part of their brain associated with the memory of past events and experiences, a new study by two Montreal researchers concludes.
Gregory West, an associate professor of psychology at the Université de Montréal, says the neuroimaging study, published Tuesday in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, is the first to find conclusive evidence of grey matter loss in a key part of the brain as a direct result of computer interaction.
“A few studies have been published that show video games could have a positive impact on the brain, namely positive associations between action video games, first-person shooter games, and visual attention and motor control skills,” West told CBC News.
“To date, no one has shown that human-computer interactions could have negative impacts on the brain — in this case the hippocampal memory system.”
The four-year study by West and Véronique Bohbot, an associate professor of psychiatry at McGill University, looked at the impact of action video games on the hippocampus, the part of the brain that plays a critical role in spatial memory and the ability to recollect past events and experiences.
Researchers Gregory West and Véronique Bohbot say their study is the first to provide conclusive evidence that video games can have a negative impact on the brain. (submitted by Gregory West)
The neuroimaging study’s participants were all healthy 18- to 30-year-olds with no history of playing video games.
Brain scans conducted on the participants before and after the experiment looked for differences in the hippocampus between players who favour spatial memory strategies and so-called response learners — that is, players whose way of navigating a game favours a part of the brain called the caudate nucleus, which helps us to form habits.
Brain scans show grey matter loss
The study says 85 per cent of gamers who play six or more hours a week have been shown to rely more heavily on this brain structure to find their way in a game.
After 90 hours of playing first-person shooter games such as Call of Duty, Killzone, Medal of Honour and Borderlands 2, the brain scans of response learners showed what West said is “statistically significant” grey matter loss in the hippocampus.
“All people who we call response learners experienced a reduction in grey matter within the hippocampus,” West said.
In a news release, the researchers expanded on their finding: “The problem is, the more they use the caudate nucleus, the less they use the hippocampus, and as a result the hippocampus loses cells and atrophies,” adding that this could have “major implications” later in life.
This brain scan of a habitual video-game player shows the hippcampus to be smaller in a ‘statistically significant manner,’ according to West and Bohbot. (submitted by Gregory West)
The hippocampus is a well-understood biomarker for certain neuropsychiatric diseases, West explained.
“People with reduced grey matter in the hippocampus are more at risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder and depression when they’re younger and even Alzheimer’s disease when they’re older,” he said.