Video Gaming Changes Adolescent Brains, May Cause Addiction

by Mike Futter on Jun 23, 2014 at 03:56 AM

A new article in the peer-reviewed Neurology Now journal explores the physical effects of extensive video game exposure on adolescents. The report reflects (and endorses) past research that identifies the positive effects of gaming, but warns about physiological changes due to excessive exposure.

The article, which appears in the June/July 2014 issue of Neurology Now, examines the impact of gaming on production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter. Dopamine is naturally produced by the brain, and is generated by reward-oriented activity.

In studies, dopamine production has been high enough in some adolescents as to nearly shut down the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain related to judgment, decision making, and self-control). The result of an excess of the neurotransmitter leads to poor choices, like selecting extended gaming binges instead of schoolwork or other crucial tasks.

This has led some researchers to investigate whether gaming can cause an addiction. "Internet game addiction" is not currently a recognized disorder and is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V). More research is under way to determine if it should be included, and researchers are focused on withdrawal symptoms in youth.

The article references the story of Anthony Rosner, whose struggle to separate himself from World of Warcraft was told in a documentary called IRL: In Real Life. Rosner nearly failed out of college before he uninstalled World of Warcraft and abandoned his 18-hour gaming binges.

The dopamine production comes from reward structures similar to slot machines. This is best evidenced in MMOs, as players hope for specific loot drops. The prefrontal cortex doesn't fully mature until sometime between age 25 and 30, which is why the concern about dopamine production is focused more on young people.

"In a way, the video game model is brilliant," says neurologist Judy Willis, M.D. "It can feed information to the brain in a way that maximizes learning." This idea has been applied to "brain training" games, but those seem to only enhance performance at the specific tasks used in the minigames.

By contrast, the way video games dole out rewards is a perfect way to enact change, both positive and negative, in the brain. For instance, action games improve visual acuity, while other genres enhance multitasking and information processing.

With regard to the ongoing discussions of violent video games in youth, Neurology Now offers some evidence about their effects. Studies show playing violent video games for 30 minutes is evidenced to cause a more pronounced dip in prefrontal cortex activity in adolescents than the same amount of time with a non-violent game. The article also cites a 2014 study regarding violent gaming and aggressive thought (which is different than violent actions).

It's important to note that just like anything else that affects health, each person's reaction to stimulus is different. "Asking what are the effects of video games is like asking what are the effects of eating food," says Tom Hummer, Ph.D. and assistant professor of psychiatry at Indiana University. "Different games do different things. They can have benefits or detriments depending on what you're looking at."

[Source: Neurology Now]


Our Take
As more research comes in about the impact of gaming on its increasingly diverse consumer base, it’s becoming clear that as with most things, moderation is crucial. For young people, that may mean intervention by parents to ensure that school work, chores, and social interactions are happening.

What is interesting to me about this article is that it points to clear, physical evidence of how gaming impacts the brain. This doesn’t mean that gaming is bad (in fact, the article identifies a number of benefits). It just means that parents should be vigilant about the type and quantity of media their children consume.