Video Games a Viable Treatment for Mental Illness?

Megan Brooks

November 08, 2013

Playing a video game causes positive structural brain changes in regions responsible for spatial orientation, memory formation, strategic planning, and fine motor skills, with potential implications for psychiatric disorders, new research suggests.

In light of these findings, investigators from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, Germany, suggest that video game training might be therapeutically useful for patients with mental disorders such as schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's dementia, in which brain regions are altered or reduced in size.

"While previous studies have shown differences in brain structure of video gamers, the present study can demonstrate the direct causal link between video gaming and a volumetric brain increase. This proves that specific brain regions can be trained by means of video games," lead author Simone Kühn, PhD, said in a statement.

The study was published online October 29 in Molecular Psychiatry.

Commercially Available Game

Video gaming provides the gamer with a multitude of complex cognitive and motor demands. There is a growing body of evidence that video game experts outperform novices on several cognitive measures of attention and perception, which has fueled interest in using video games for brain training.

"Surprisingly," however, "studies exploring the functional and structural neural correlates of frequent video gaming are scarce," the investigators write.

"This is the first study that systematically explores structural brain changes in response to training with a commercial video game," Dr. Kühn told Medscape Medical News.

Dr. Simone Kühn

The researchers had 23 healthy young adults with little or no prior video game experience play the video game "Super Mario 64" for more than 30 minutes a day for 2 months. A matched control group of 25 adults did not play video games. Brain volume was quantified using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

In comparison with the control group, the video gaming group showed significant gray matter increases in right hippocampal formation (HC), right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), and bilateral cerebellum. These changes were more pronounced the more desire the video gamer had to play the video game.

The researchers plan to do further studies to investigate the effects of video gaming in patients with mental health issues.

"We are currently testing the effectiveness of the same intervention in patients with post-traumatic stress disorder, since they have a deficit in hippocampal structure," Dr. Kühn said.

"Many patients will accept video games more readily than other medical interventions," Jürgen Gallinat, MD, a coauthor of the study from Charité University Medicine, St. Hedwig-Krankenhaus, in Berlin, commented in a statement.

"Remarkable" Impact

This is "pretty interesting work from an excellent group of researchers," Joaquin Anguera, PhD, of the Sandler Neurosciences Center, University of California, San Francisco, who was not involved in the study, told Medscape Medical News. "I think it's clear that video games can have an influence on the brain, with this study providing that much more evidence from a structural perspective."

Dr. Anguera said the changes at the DLPFC were "pretty remarkable given that this was associated with an off-the-shelf game with little researcher supervision during training. Similarly, the observed DLPFC/desire correlation is also intriguing for future work looking to capitalize on the use of video games as an intervention, as these findings would suggest that identifying those individuals who were excited about playing would appear to have the potential for the greatest gains," he said.

As reported by Medscape Medical News, in his own research, Dr. Anguera has also found cognitive benefits of video game training.

The authors and Dr. Anguera report no relevant financial relationships.

Mol Psychiatry. Published online October 29, 2013. Abstract

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