Fran Lowry

November 29, 2011

November 29, 2011 (Chicago, Illinois) — Playing violent video games might be detrimental to the functioning of the brain, according to research presented here at the Radiological Society of North America 97th Scientific Assembly and Annual Meeting.

Young men who played violent video games for 10 hours over a 1-week period showed decreased activity in areas of the brain involved in attention, inhibition, decision making, and executive function, principal investigator Vincent P. Mathews, MD, professor of radiology at Indiana University School of Medicine, Indianapolis, told Medscape Medical News.

In earlier work, Dr. Mathews and his group showed that playing violent video games for just 30 minutes affected emotional decision-making and cognitive function immediately afterward.

Dr. Yang Wang

The current study, which was led by Yang Wang, MD, from the Indiana University School of Medicine, assessed changes in brain function after 1 week of violent video game playing.

The subjects were 22 healthy men 18 to 29 years of age whose past exposure to violent video games was low (mean, 0.9 ± 0.8 hours per week). They were randomized to play a violent shooting video game for about 10 hours the first week and then to refrain from playing for the second week, or to play no violent video games for the entire 2-week period.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was performed at study entry and at 1 and 2 weeks. During fMRI, the participants completed 2 modified Stroop tasks. During the emotional Stroop task, subjects pressed buttons matching the color of visually presented words. Words indicating violent actions were interspersed with nonviolent action words in a pseudorandom order. During the counting Stroop task, subjects completed a cognitive inhibition counting task.

The researchers found that after 1 week of violent video game play, the study group showed less activation in the left inferior frontal lobe during the emotional task and less activation in the anterior cingulate cortex during the counting task, compared with their baseline results and results in the control group.

"Their executive functioning abilities were decreased, and so were their cognitive functioning abilities," Dr. Mathews said.

"People...should be aware that there are changes in their brain function when they play violent video games, and take that into consideration when they decide how much time they spend doing these activities and what sort of games they choose to play," he told Medscape Medical News.

Another avenue of research might be to study the effects of "prosocial" video games on brain activity, he added.

"There have been behavioral studies showing that people who play prosocial games — or games that involve helping others — actually result in increased compassion and increased positive behavior toward other people.... Those kinds of video games may mitigate the changes seen with violent video games and may help people develop more positive behaviors."

Medscape Medical News invited Max Wintermark, MD, chief of neuroradiology at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, to comment on this study.

"We always tell our kids that they shouldn't watch those violent shows on TV and that they shouldn't play those violent video games, but you would not necessarily expect that you would see something on imaging," said Dr. Wintermark, who was not part of the study.

The disturbances in brain activity that were manifested after a period of violent video gaming on fMRI are sobering, he added. "It's not just psychological, there is some underlying change that can actually be measured with imaging. These changes should not be dismissed."

Dr. Mathews, Dr. Wang, and Dr. Wintermark have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) 97th Scientific Assembly and Annual Meeting: Abstract SST11-06. Presented December 2, 2011.

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