Brain scans of nearly 200 adolescent boys recorded as part of a new study performed in South Korea show that compulsive video game players have radically different wiring in their brains. The most notable change is increased communication (known as hyperconnectivity) between several functional brain networks. While the changes in morphology make chronic video game players more adept at responding to new information, the authors also point out that they’re associated with distractability and poor impulse control.
While I don’t identify with the gamer culture, I do enjoy games; I’ve lost some nights and had quite a few rushed meals for a good LAN party or MMO raid. But for those suffering from Internet gaming disorder, playing video games even to the detriment of sleep or nutrition isn’t necessarily a choice, but a compulsion.
A collaboration between the University of Utah’s School of Medicine and Chung-Ang University in South Korea, aimed to understand the brains of compulsive gamers in an effort to gain insight into possible treatments for the condition. It’s the largest investigation of differences in the brains of compulsive video game players to date, says first author Doug Hyun Han. Participants were screened from South Korea, where video game playing is a major social activity. The Korean government supports his research with the goal of finding ways to identify and treat addicts.
The team used magnetic resonance imaging to look into the brains of 106 boys aged 10 through 19 who were seeking treatment for Internet gaming disorder. Their recordings were compared to those taken from a control group of 80 boys of similar age, looking for brain areas that activate simultaneously while the participants were at rest. A more frequent activation translated to a stronger functional connectivity, the study reads.
The authors looked at activity in 25 pairs of brain regions for a total of 300 combinations. Participants suffering from the disorder showed significant functional connections between the following pairs of regions:
- Auditory cortex (hearing) — motor cortex (movement)
- Auditory cortex (hearing) — supplementary motor cortices (movement)
- Auditory cortex (hearing) — anterior cingulate (salience network)
- Frontal eye field (vision) — anterior cingulate (salience network)
- Frontal eye field (vision) — anterior insula (salience network)
- Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex — temporoparietal junction
“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,” says senior author Jeffrey Anderson, M.D., Ph.D. and associate professor of neuroradiology at the University of Utah School of Medicine.
“The changes could essentially help someone to think more efficiently.”
The study also found that certain brain networks involved in the processing of visual and auditory data tend to have better connectivity to the salience network. This structure is responsible for focusing out attention on events or objects, preparing us to take action in response to a threat or an expected event. In real life, this network is what allows you to slam the brakes when a dog runs in front of your car, for example. In the context of a video game, this translates into faster reaction time to an incoming opponent or environmental change.
But it’s not all roses; for compulsive video game players, the participants also showed increased connectivity between two other structures, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and termporoparietal junction.
“Most of the differences we see could be considered beneficial. However the good changes could be inseparable from problems that come with them,” Anderson adds
“Having these networks be too connected may increase distractibility,” he concludes.
These connections have also been identified in patients with conditions such as schizophrenia, Down syndrome, autism and are associated with poor impulse control. It’s not currently known whether this rewiring is a cause of or an effect of the disorder, i.e. if the changes are brought about by persistent gaming or if they make people particularly drawn to video games, and the authors note that further research is required to address this question.
The paper, titled “Brain connectivity and psychiatric comorbidity in adolescents with Internet gaming disorder” was published online in the journal Addiction Biology.