The brains of compulsive video game players appear to be wired differently than those of non-gamers, according to a new brain scan study of nearly 200 teenaged boys who were seeking treatment for compulsive gaming behavior.
The findings show that many chronic gamers exhibit hyperconnectivity between several pairs of brain networks. Some of these differences are seen as positive, such as the ability to respond to new information, while others, such as higher distractibility and poor impulse control, can be seen as negative.
“Most of the differences we see could be considered beneficial. However the good changes could be inseparable from problems that come with them,” said senior author Jeffrey Anderson, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of neuro-radiology at the University of Utah School of Medicine.
For the study, the researchers performed magnetic resonance imaging on 106 South Korean boys between the ages of 10 to 19 who were seeking treatment for Internet gaming disorder, a psychological condition listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as warranting further research.
Individuals with Internet gaming disorder are obsessed with video games, often to the extent that they give up eating and sleeping to play.
The brain scans of the chronic gamers were compared to those of 80 boys without the disorder, and analyzed for regions that were activated simultaneously while participants were at rest, a measure of functional connectivity.
The team analyzed activity in 25 pairs of brain regions, 300 combinations in all. The researchers found that in teen boys with the disorder, certain brain networks that process vision or hearing are more likely to have enhanced connectivity to the so-called salience network.
The job of the salience network is to focus attention on vital situations, prompting the individual to take action. In a video game, enhanced coordination could help a gamer react more quickly to the rush of an oncoming fighter, for example. And in real life, to a ball darting in front of a car, or an unfamiliar voice in a crowded room.
“Hyperconnectivity between these brain networks could lead to a more robust ability to direct attention toward targets, and to recognize novel information in the environment,” said Anderson. “The changes could essentially help someone to think more efficiently.”
Potentially more troublesome is an increased connection between two particular brain regions — the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and temporoparietal junction — a difference also found in patients with neuropsychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia, Down’s syndrome, and autism.
Hyperconnectivity between the two regions is also observed in people with poor impulse control. “Having these networks be too connected may increase distractibility,” Anderson said.
At this point, it is still unclear whether chronic video gaming causes rewiring of the brain, or whether people who are wired differently are drawn to video games.
One of the next steps in research will be to determine whether the boys with these brain differences do better on performance tests.
The study is published in the journal Addiction Biology.