Video Gaming Linked to Neural Changes

Findings May Have Implications for Substance Abuse and Addiction

Yael Waknine

November 15, 2011

November 15, 2011 — The structure and activity in a part of the brain associated with reward processing may be altered in video-game players, a new imaging study shows.

Investigators at the Charité University Clinic for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy in Berlin, Germany, found that frequent gamers have greater left striatal gray matter volume compared with moderate gamers.

The investigators postulate that the findings show the importance of striatal volume and activity in shaping preference of skills for video gaming, rather than the reverse.

"The key finding of higher volume in left ventral striatum associated with frequent video game playing is in conceptual accordance with findings of enhanced dopamine release during [this activity] and excessive gambling in Parkinson's patients [given] dopaminergic medication," the investigators write.

The study was published online November 15 in Translational Psychiatry.

Although prior studies have reported an involvement of dopamine-related ventral striatum in gaming and computer gambling, structural brain correlates have not previously been investigated.

For the study, researchers led by Simone Kühn, PhD, from the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences, Department of Experimental Psychology, Ghent Institute for Functional and Metabolic Imaging, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium; Charité University Medicine; and Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt, Berlin and Braunschweig, Germany, analyzed magnetic resonance imaging scans of adolescents aged 14 years (n = 154) from the IMAGEN project, a European multicenter genetic neuroimaging study in teenagers.

Participants were divided, based on a median of 9 hours weekly spent indulging in video games, into 2 playing categories: frequent (n = 76; 24 girls, 52 boys) and moderate (n = 78; 58 girls, 20 boys).

Results showed that frequent gamers had a significantly increased volume of left grey striatal matter compared with moderate gamers (P < .001, corrected for multiple comparisons; Montreal Neurologic Institute [MNI] coordinate, −9, 12, −5), which in turn was associated with higher functional magnetic resonance imaging activity when not winning in a gambling task (P < .001, uncorrected; for small volume correlation in structural cluster of ventrial striatum family-wise error, P < .05; MNI coordinate, −9, 8, 4).

The increased activity was negatively correlated with deliberation time in betting, as evaluated using a Monetary Incentive Delay task used to assess brain activity during reward anticipation and reward feedback (r [153], −0.25; P < .01, Bonferroni corrected at P < .05).

"Individuals with higher ventral striatum volume might experience video gaming as more rewarding in the first place. This in turn could facilitate skill acquisition and lead to further reward from playing," the authors write.

This could lead to more risky behavior and negatively interact with decision-making, including that involved in developing addiction to drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine, and alcohol.

"If the striatal differences observed in the current study are indeed an effect of gaming, video gaming might pose an interesting option to explore structural changes in addiction in future studies," the authors write.

The IMAGEN study receives research funding from the European Community's Sixth Framework Program and is supported by the UK Department of Health National Institute for Health Research–Biomedical Research Center 'Mental Health' and a MRC program grant. Additional funding was provided by the Berliner Senatsverwaltung.

Transl Psychiatry. Published online November 15, 2011. Full text

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