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The "deep training" that occurs during video-game play might change gamers' brains — priming them to react quickly to changes in their environment but also making it more difficult for them to focus, according to a University of Utah study.

Youths who are addicted to video games share a common sign of increased neural connectivity in their brains, said study author Jeffrey Anderson, an associate professor of neuroradiology at the U. This increased connectivity could make the brain more efficient at certain tasks, but also comes with some downsides.

The study, headed by Doug Hyun Han, a professor at Chung-Ang University in Korea, and sponsored by the Korean government, involved conducting MRIs on 106 teenage boys who were pursuing treatment for Internet gaming disorder in Korea, and comparing them with the brain scans of other teen boys who did not have the disorder. Internet gaming disorder is not an official diagnosis, but has been listed in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a condition that merits further research.

The analysis of the scans found that the game-addicted boys had increased connectivity between the portions of the brain responsible for vision and hearing and the brain regions that determine the importance of stimuli and direct movement. Those associations make perfect sense, Anderson said, because to those regions of the brain, playing video games would be akin to lifting weights — the muscles grow and become stronger to meet the increased demands placed upon them.

There was another, less intuitive fingerprint in the game-addicted teens: an increase of connectivity between the part of the brain that deals with interpreting the external world, and the part that is responsible for managing our inner world — our thoughts, decisions, morals, and our beliefs. This connection is potentially troubling, Anderson said, because the two regions of the brain are normally separate. Connection between them is associated with disorders such as schizophrenia and autism.

Anderson said it wasn't quite clear from his team's research whether the increased connectivity was a direct result of playing video games, or whether people with that type of wiring in their brains were more likely to enjoy playing video games. He believes the former is more likely.

"It could be that people who play video games are just that type of person," he said, "but I don't think that's a good hypothesis, because the changes seem very specific to a training effect."

At the same time, Anderson, who studies autism, said he's "hard-pressed to find a child with autism who isn't a Minecraft expert. Individuals with autism love that inner world of video-game playing." The study did include teens with anxiety, depression and ADHD as both subjects and controls in an effort to separate the effects of mental illnesses that often coincide with gaming addiction from the addiction itself.

Girls were not included because, Anderson said, addiction is far more common among teen boys. Large numbers of teen girls do play games, he said, but the problems associated with addiction — lack of sleep, skipped meals, irritability, poor hygiene and trouble at work or in school — are more common among male gamers.

Despite the connection to mental illness and addiction, Anderson said, he isn't about to throw out his own games, which he enjoys playing with his children. The changes they may induce, he said, aren't necessarily bad. Increased connectivity can make the brain's processes more efficient, and the brain training stimulated by video games can come in handy when, for example, it decreases the time needed to react to something darting in front of your car.

But the other side of the coin, he said, is that these changes also decrease impulse control and make it more difficult for individuals to ignore extraneous stimuli when they need to focus on completing a task.

Anderson said he and his colleagues have begun a longitudinal study of video-game addiction to determine whether the brain changes are caused by playing video games. He said he hopes further research will help determine whether gamers can avoid the negative consequences of their hobby while allowing them to continue to reap the benefits.

In the meantime, he said, parents and individuals "should see video gaming in the way they would see other activities that have the potential to be addictive.

"If you find yourself unable to sustain work or schoolwork," he said, "or if it's disruptive in your life, those are signs that you should talk to a professional about those concerns."

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