Study Shows Brain Activity Changes After Playing Video Games

The human brainIn a MedPage Today article linked to by Indiana University’s School of Medicine, it was revealed that, in a small functional MRI (fMRI) study, men who played violent video games for about 10 hours over the course of one week had diminished activity in areas of the brain associated with control of aggressive behavior. The fMRIs showed lessened activity in the left inferior frontal lobe during the emotional task and less activation in the anterior cingulate cortex during the inhibition task compared with controls as well as with their own baseline scans.

“We found that gamers showed reduced activity in areas of the brain involved in attention, inhibition, and decision making,” Vincent Mathews, MD, of Indiana University in Indianapolis said. “This explains what others have observed in behavioral studies that[,] when people are exposed to violent video games, they may show more aggression.”

According to MedPage, Michael Lipton, MD, PhD, of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, called the findings preliminary, adding, “There have been a lot of studies that expose patients to novel behaviors, and you see changes in brain activity that then go away over time. The problem is, how does that translate into real[-]world functionality?”

Analysis: I’m not surprised that they found that (violent) video games altered brain activity as any activity done enough times will alter brain activity. What is notable, however, is what areas were affected—those relating to attention, inhibition, and decision making—and the time it took in order to get those changes: ten hours. In previous research by Mathews, they had found that just thirty minutes of playing video games altered the prefrontal cortex. They did not say whether a comparison of these studies had been made; that is, whether anyone looked to see if the changes were more drastic for those who played ten hours as opposed to thirty minutes.

I feel I must note that the sample size for this study is very small at twenty-two total participants—eleven in each group—and that it focused only on men. The small sample size can be attributed to the fact that these people had to be put into an fMRI machine several times, which can get expensive for researchers. The fact that the sample only included men is probably due to the sample size; if you think it’s hard generalizing from twenty-two people, you can only imagine what it would be like trying to generalize from only eleven. These men also had very little exposure to video games, so novel exposure could affect the brain more drastically than if someone were to play video games for over half an hour a day for a few years.

I should remind everyone that, though this study will potentially lead us into new directions as far as understanding how violent video games affect behavior, it is not saying that video games cause people to be violent. Rather, it’s stating that violent video games may lower someone’s inhibitions toward violent behavior. Mathews also warned that this was the result of a week of gaming, and it’s not very clear how the brain would react to years of gaming. It could be that these effects grow, or the brain could adjust and the effects go away.

As of right now, it looks like the implications here may be more relevant to people who are starting to play violent video games; so special attention should probably be paid to, say, a ten-year-old playing his first Call of Duty title, as brain changes are likely to result in behavioral changes, at least for a while. No generalizations can be made about people who have been playing violent video games for extended periods of time.


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