Video games: How does it affect our brain

Video gaming is obviously a common type of entertainment, with video gamers spending three billion hours every week in front of their screens collectively. Scientists have studied how video games affect the brain and behaviour, due to their extensive use. Are there positive or negative effects? We are looking into the facts.

A man playing video game
There is increasing research focused on the impact of video gaming on the brain.

About 150 million people in the United States play video games on a daily basis, or for at least 3 hours a week, at a glance. The average American gamer is an adult aged 35, with 72 per cent of players aged 18 and older. For children’s use of video games, most parents-71 percent-suggest that video games have a positive effect on the life of their child.

Sales of video games keep on rising year after year. The video game industry sold over 24.5 billion games in 2016-up from 23.2 billion in 2015 and 21.4 billion in 2014.

Call of Duty became the top three best-selling 2016 video games: Modern Warfare, Battlefield 1, and Grand Theft Auto V. These games fall under the first-person shooter or action-adventure genres – the top two categories comprising 27.5 percent and 22.5 percent of sales respectively. First-person shooter and action styles are also concerned with stirring violence and aggressive and addictive triggers.

Decades of studies into computer games and abuse have struggled to achieve scientific consensus. Scientists were unable to find a causal link between playing video games and real-world acts of violence.

Video games and brain changes

However, an growing body of evidence indicates that video games can affect the brain and, moreover, can cause changes in many brain regions.

Video game addicted
Game addicts have functional and structural changes in the neural reward system.

Evidence from 116 scientific studies were recently compiled and analyzed by scientists to establish how video games can affect our brains and behaviours. The findings from their study have been published in Human Neuroscience in Frontiers.

“Sometimes games were celebrated or demonized, sometimes with no real evidence to back up those arguments. In addition, gaming is a popular activity so everyone seems to have strong views on the subject, “says Marc Palaus, the review’s first author.

Through looking at all of the work to date, Palaus and the team wanted to see whether any patterns have developed about how video games influence the brain’s structure and operation. A total of 22 of the studies examined investigated structural brain changes, and 100 studies studied improvements in brain functioning and behavior.

Studies findings show that playing video games not only affects the way our brains function but also the composition of our brains.

Video game use, for example, is known to affect focus. The studies included in the study indicate that video game players are showing changes in different kinds of treatment, including sustained attention and focused care. In addition, the brain regions that play a role in concentration are more effective in gamers compared to non-gamers, and they need less stimulation in order to stay concentrated on challenging tasks.

Evidence also suggests that playing video games increases the size and maturity of brain parts responsible for visuospatial skills-the capacity of a person to distinguish visual and spatial interactions between objects. The right hippocampus was expanded in long-term players and people who had volunteered to follow a training schedule for video games.

Researchers also discovered that video games may be addictive – a condition known as the “Online gaming disease.”

In gaming users, the neural reward system has functional and structural changes – a community of systems correlated with experiencing joy, learning, and motivation. Such changes were illustrated by introducing video game addicts to game-related signals that trigger cravings, and tracking their brain responses – changes that are often seen in other addictive disorders.

“Researchers have concentrated on how the brain responds to exposure to video games, but these results don’t necessarily translate into real-life changes,” Palaus says. Work on the effects of video games is still in its infancy and scientists are still investigating what elements of games have an impact on what regions of the brain and how.

“Video games are likely to have both positive (attention, visual and motor skills) and negative (addiction risk) aspects and it is important that we accept this ambiguity,” Palaus continues.

Are brain-training games beneficial?

A team of Florida State University researchers have reported that people should be wary of adverts advertising an improvement in brain output resulting from brain training games. We said science is not supporting such arguments.

Adults playing video game
Playing brain-training games did not improve cognitive abilities in older adults.

“Our results and previous research indicate that there is very little proof that these types of games will meaningfully change your life,” says Wally Boot, associate psychology professor, an authority on age-related cognitive decline.

People are gradually being under the illusion that applications for brain training can protect them from memory loss or cognitive disorders.

Scientists checked whether playing brain-training games improved players ‘working memory and thereby improved other cognitive skills, including thinking, memory, and speed of thought – a mechanism scientists call “quick transition,” but that was not the case.

“Training people can be very effective at tasks you would usually call general working memory tasks: memorizing 70, 80, even 100 digits,” explains Neil Charness, psychology professor and leading expert on aging and cognition.

“But these abilities appear to be very limited and don’t show much transition. In fact, the thing that seniors should be worried about is, if I can get really good at crossword puzzles, is that it will help me remember where my keys are? And possibly, the answer is no, “he adds.

Charness points out that aerobic exercise will help if the goal is to enhance cognitive performance. Some work has shown that physical exercise stimulates the brain, rather than mental activity.

Video games boost memory

By comparison, a study published in Nature showed that cognitive function could be increased in older adults by using a specially built 3-D video game, and reversed some of the negative effects associated with aging on the brain.

Video games boots memory in adults
A small amount of brain training can reverse age-related brain decline.

Researchers at the University of California-San Francisco (UCSF) explain that this offers a measure of academic support in the brain fitness field – criticized for lack of evidence – that brain exercise can induce positive and lasting improvement.

After 12 hours of training over the course of one month, study participants aged between 60 and 85 years improved performance on the game that exceeded that of first-time players in their 20s. In addition, two other significant cognitive areas have been improved: work memory and sustained attention. Six months after completion of their preparation, those skills were retained.

“The result is a strong example of how the older brain is fluid,” says Dr. Adam Gazzaley, Ph.D., associate professor of neurology, physiology and psychiatry at UCSF and director of the Imaging Center for Neurosciences. Dr. Gazzaley states that it is promising that some of the brain loss that happens with age can be reversed only with a little brain training.

A new research by neurobiologists at the University of California- (UCI) found that playing 3-D video games could also improve memory formation. Participants were assigned to either a community that played 2-D video games, or a 3-D world. After 2 weeks of playing the games for 30 minutes a day, the students were given memory tests which engaged the hippocampus of the brain.

The 3-D group participants substantially increased their memory test scores as opposed to the 2-D group. The memory output of the 3-D group improved by 12 percent – the same amount the memory performance typically decreases by between the ages of 45 and 70.

“First, there are a few features the 2-D games don’t have,” says Craig Stark, of the Learning & Memory Neurobiology Center at UCI. “We have much more spatial knowledge to discover in there. Second, they are much more nuanced, with far more knowledge to be found. Either way, we know this form of learning and memory not only activates but also involves the hippocampus. “Strategy video games, in particular, have shown promise in improving brain activity among older adults and can provide defense against dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

“If the goal is to enhance the emotional, thinking and cognitive abilities of older adults, and to stave off dementia and Alzheimer’s disease as long as possible, then maybe strategic games are the way to go,” advises Chandramallika Basak, assistant professor at the Center for Vital Longevity and the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences at the University of Texas in Dallas.

Basak, like Charness, believes that when it comes to enhancing executive performance, executive preparation would be second to physical activity services. Positive effects on memory and brain function and development have been related to physical fitness programmes.

There is evidence to suggest that video games in adults with moderate cognitive disability may be a effective therapy for depression and improve memory and mood.

The impact of video games on the brain is a new area of research to be explored further. We might only scratch the surface of the potential that video games could pose in improving cognitive capacity and preventing cognitive disorders.

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