02 December 2011

Evidence that Brain Function Changes after Playing Violent Video Games

Sustained changes in the region of the brain associated with cognitive function and emotional control were found in young adult men after one week of playing violent video games, according to study results presented by Indiana University School of Medicine researchers at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America. _SD
Indiana U. School of Medicine

The study's findings suggest a prolonged -- but not permanent -- alteration of brain function in young men who played violent video games. This is precisely what should be expected, given what is known about the plasticity of the human brain. The brain always adapts to what it is given, and this adaptation occurs from the molecular level to the morphological level, along with a change in function and behaviour. Military training camps are likely to make greater use of video games as a routine and regular part of camp routine.
The controversy over whether or not violent video games are potentially harmful to players has been debated for many years, even making it as far as the Supreme Court in 2010. There has been little scientific evidence demonstrating that the games have a prolonged negative neurological effect.

"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 IU Department of Radiology and Imaging Sciences. "The affected brain regions are important for controlling emotion and aggressive behavior."

For the study, 28 healthy adult males, age 18 to 29, with low past exposure to violent video games were randomly assigned to two groups of 14. Members of the first group were instructed to play a shooting video game for 10 hours at home for one week and refrain from playing the following week. The second group did not play a video game at all during the two-week period.
Each of the 28 men underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) analysis at the beginning of the study, with follow-up exams at one and two weeks. During fMRI, the participants completed an emotional interference task, pressing buttons according to the color of visually presented words. Words indicating violent actions were interspersed among nonviolent action words. In addition, the participants completed a cognitive inhibition counting task.

The results showed that after one week of violent game play, the video game group members showed less activation in the left inferior frontal lobe during the emotional Stroop task and less activation in the anterior cingulate cortex during the counting Stroop task, compared to their baseline results and the results of the control group after one week. After the video game group refrained from game play for an additional week, the changes to the executive regions of the brain returned closer to the control group. Stroop task tests an individual's ability to control cognitive flexibility and attention. _SD
The game playing activity was not monitored, so it is possible that the control group may have secretly played violent games, or the test group may not have played for as many hours as required. In fact, given the addictive nature of video games, it is likely that at least some of the participants cheated the second week and either played the games or thought about playing the games.

All of these possibilities make it more difficult to "prove" a hypothesis. Even so, the results are suggestive, and will probably be followed by more detailed confirmatory studies.

Brain imaging has expanded the ways in which the brain function underlying behaviour can be studied. Brain imaging equipment is shrinking in size, so that it will not be long before your smart phone or iPad can double as a brain imaging device. When this happens, every home and apartment will become a brain research institute -- but with varying levels of rigour involved.

But things will really start becoming exciting when ubiquitous brain imaging is combined with advanced neurofeedback tools. When that combination becomes common, individuals will hold in their hands the power to reshape their own brains in powerful ways. This will be very useful for most adults who are looking to improve their work, study, or sexual performance.

But what about the parents who start shaping the brains of their children from their earliest moments? In that brave new world, the term "human time bomb" will take on a significance we may have reason to regret.


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Blogger Peter said...

I'd be interested to see a similar study of what happens to the brains of combat veterans - by which I mean, not those exposed to only one or two incidents of combat, but those who live in a combat environment, with all its danger, tension and worry, for months or years at a time.

I'm one such person, and I'm aware of changes in my attitude and personality that resulted from that experience - changes that were permanent, and from which I've never 'recovered' (if 'recovery' is an appropriate term).

Do you know whether that's been done, or is planned? It'd obviously be almost impossible to do such studies on a 'before-and-after' basis, but if a 'baseline' of a 'normal' brain could be established, it might be possible to see how actual combat changes one's brain in the process.

Thanks for a very interesting and thought-provoking post.

Friday, 02 December, 2011  
Blogger al fin said...

In countries that induct military conscriptees, baseline studies could be done on all inductees who are likely to join combat units.

Periodic comparison imaging could be undertaken in those who join combat units -- and particularly in those who actually see extended combat.

Those who are killed in combat will be lost to the study in one sense, but in many cases the brains would be made available for detailed post-mortem study.

Similar studies could be done using inner city youth and gang members. With parents' permission, young boys living in neighborhoods "at risk" could be studied prior to joining a gang. Then later, as possible, they or their brains could be studied to look for long term after-effects of a violent lifestyle.

Society certainly has an interest in understanding this phenomenon.

Saturday, 03 December, 2011  

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