How violent videogames affect the brain


Violent video game play may have a long-term effect on brain functioning

Whether or not playing videogames too much, especially violent ones, causes brain damage has long been matter of much debate. Now science shows that those fears were not entirely unfounded: alterations in the brain do occur, although perhaps it is yet too early to know how harmful.


A new study, conducted at Indiana University School of Medicine and presented at the congress of the Society of Radiology in Chicago found the first hard evidence of the effects of video games using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Playing violent video games for only one week can change the brain in regions associated with cognitive function and emotional control, the study found.

"For the first time, we have found that a sample of randomly assigned young adults showed less activation in certain frontal brain regions following a week of playing violent video games at home," said Yang Wang, M.D., assistant research professor in the Department of Radiology and Imaging Sciences at Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis. "These brain regions are important for controlling emotion and aggressive behavior."  And 10 hours of videogames a week is all it takes.

A volunteer group of 22 young men aged between 18 and 29 years with low past exposure to video games were asked to play shooting video games for 10 hours a week for one week and to avoid playing at all the following week. A second group didn't play a violent video game at all.

Each volunteer underwent fMRI at the beginning of the study, another fMRI at the end of the first week, and a third exam at the end of the second week.

After only one week, those volunteers who played video games showed less activation in the areas of the brain that control emotion and aggression.

The difference in brain functioning was clear both comparing the gamers during the gaming week and the non-gaming week as well as the young men who played with those who hadn't played at all.

The fact that after they stopped playing for one week the brain activity returned to normal shows that there is good potential for recovery, but what is yet to be understood, say the authors of the study, is what happens to the brain after years of constant stress.


Another study of the Universities of Amsterdam and New York published on 'Science' has moreover shown that the violent videos reconfigure the type of neurons in the brain.

BOLD-fMRI examinations (a specialized type of scan used to track neural activity and biochemical changes in the brain) have revealed that playing violent videogames increases the neurons best suited to address fight or flight situations, as happens during wartime for example.

There is also an increase in the connections between higher brain centers (cortex frontoinsulare, dorsal anterior cingulate, temporoparietal, and inferotemporal) and lower ones (amygdala, thalamus, hypothalamus and midbrain) that form the nerve network that controls the autonomic neuroendocrine and vigilance.

The saliva of subjects has been examined while they watched alternately very violent videoclips and clips that were not violent at all. Only those who watched violent clips increased norepinephrine, the neurotransmitter that characterizes their brain neurons that had been observed flourishing under BOLD-fMRI.

Noradrenaline is essential in the overall response to stress because it increases attention and the fight or flight reactions by supporting the activation of the sympathetic nervous system with increased heart rate, release of energy in the form of glucose from body stores of glycogen and increased muscle tone.

From the biochemical point of view, it's as if the player were actually physically fighting.


Another study conducted on 14-year olds by Belgian, Canadian, French, English, Irish and German researchers published in 'Translational Psychiatry' has shown that, comparing casual players with addicted ones, only in the brain of the latter does the volume of the striatum, implicated in procedural learning and cognitive flexibility, appears greater. And it becomes more active in case of loss, a phenomenon also observed in those who use cocaine, amphetamines or alcohol.

This is linked to alterations of dopamine, the neurotransmitter of pleasure, so that the researchers suggest a kind of addiction to video games due to saturation of the mechanisms of reward and compensation.


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