The Athlete's Way

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Video Gaming Can Increase Brain Size and Connectivity

Neuroscientists find that video gaming can have therapeutic cognitive benefits.

A new study has found that video gaming can stimulate neurogenesis (growth of new neurons) and connectivity in the brain regions responsible for spatial orientation, memory formation and strategic planning, as well as, fine motor skills. Brain volume was quantified using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). In comparison to a control group, the video gaming group showed increases of gray matter, which houses the cell bodies of nerve cells in the brain.

Neurogenesis and neuroplasticity improvements were observed in the right hippocampus, right prefrontal cortex and the cerebellum. These brain regions are involved in functions such as spatial navigation, memory formation, strategic planning and fine motor skills of the hands. Increasingly, the level of connectivity between brain areas is being linked to higher intelligence and consciousness.

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Interestingly, these changes were more pronounced the more passionate desire a participant reported to playing the video game. Gaming brings together the cerebral function of the cerebrum with the cerebellar muscle memory of the cerebellum which improves cognitive function and performance.

The October 2013 study, titled “Playing Super Mario Induces Structural Brain Plasticity: Gray Matter Changes Resulting from Training with a Commercial Video Game” was conducted at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and Charité University Medicine in Berlin.

The researchers predict that the benefits of video gaming could be helpful in therapeutic interventions targeting psychiatric disorders. Study leader, Simone Kühn and her colleagues believe that video games could be a useful tool for treating patients with mental health problems in which brain regions are altered or reduced in size, such as: schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's dementia.

"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," says Kühn.

"Many patients will accept video games more readily than other medical interventions," adds psychiatrist Jürgen Gallinat, co-author of the study. Further studies to investigate the effects of video gaming in patients with mental health issues are planned. A study on the effects of video gaming in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder is currently in progress.

Video Gaming Benefits Multitasking Skills

Researchers at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) have created a specialized video game that may help older people boost mental skills like handling multiple tasks at once. Dr. Adam Gazzaley of UCSF and colleagues published their findings in the September 2013 journal Nature.

In the preliminary UCSF study, healthy volunteers ages 60 to 85 improved their ability to multitask and to stay focused on a boring activity while keeping relevant information in mind. The gaming improved the short-term memory people use to remember things like a 7 digit phone number long enough to write it down. These cognitive abilities typically decline with age leading to what some describe with the colloquialism ‘senior moment.’

The video game, called NeuroRacer, involves doing two things simultaneously. A player uses a joystick to guide a car along a hilly, twisting road, steering it and controlling its speed. At the same time, a series of signs—actually colored shapes—appears on the screen. The player is supposed to push a button only when a particular kind of sign appears. Players were scored on how quickly and accurately they reacted to the right signs. The game progresses to harder levels as a player improves, to keep it challenging.

Gazzaley and other brain experts said bigger studies were needed to assess whether the game could actually help people function in their everyday lives. He's co-founder of a company that is planning to develop a product from the research.

Brain experts not related to the study point out that previous research has shown that older people can improve on mental skills such as multitasking if they are trained. But the training in past multitasking studies was "boring as all get-go," said Elizabeth Zelinski, a professor of gerontology and psychology at the University of Southern California.

“Presenting an appealing game like NeuroRacer instead could help people stick with it”, she said. The key to creating flow and superfluidity is always going to be increasing the level of challenge to match your level of skill by finding the sweet spot between boredom and anxiety.

Conclusion: Age and Type of Video Game Make All the Difference

Gaming can remove people from the real world and cause parts of your brain to literally shrink and become disconnected. Humans are not designed to live in a 2-dimensional cyber reality. Video gaming can never replace the full benefits of practicing, playing and making social connections in the real world.

That said, specialized video games might one day be able to boost mental abilities of people from all walks of life and ages. Specifically designed video games could benefit children with attention deficit disorder, people with post-traumatic stress disorder or brain injury and older adults with depression or dementia, according to Gazzaley.

In a previous Psychology Today blog titled, “Mindfulness Training and the Compassionate Brain," I write about research by Richard Davidson, who has challenged video game manufacturers to develop games that emphasize kindness and compassion instead of violence and aggression.

With a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Davidson is working with Kurt Squire, an associate professor in the School of Education and director of the Games Learning Society Initiative, to design and rigorously test two educational games to help eighth graders develop beneficial social and emotional skills—empathycooperation, mental focus, and self-regulation.

"By the time they reach the eighth grade, virtually every middle-class child in the Western world is playing smartphone apps, video games, computer games," says Davidson. "Our hope is that we can use some of that time for constructive purposes and take advantage of the natural inclination of children of that age to want to spend time with this kind of technology."

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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