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Researchers debate gaming’s effects on the brain

Researchers are at odds when it comes to video games' educational benefits.

A U.K. study that compared the brains of teenage video gamers found that those who played video games frequently have more gray matter in the area of the brain known to be associated with rewards and decision-making, which raises the question of whether gaming is related to changes in the brain.

Researchers looked for differences in the size of an area of the brain called the ventral striatum, known to be associated with reward and decision-making. This area of the brain is also associated with emotional and motivational aspects of behavior. In particular, it can release a ‘feel-good chemical’ when presented with potential reward situations, such as the opportunity to gain money.

Researchers compared the brain structure and function of 154 healthy 14-year-olds recruited from secondary schools in Germany as part of a larger European study called the IMAGEN project. This sample contained 72 boys and 82 girls and the study assessed their computer gaming activity over a week-long period.

Researchers scanned participants’ brains using MRI and looked at the amount of two components of the nervous system: gray matter and white matter. Gray matter is mostly brain cell bodies, while white matter mainly consists of the brain cell connections that link the gray matter together.

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The teenagers completed tasks to assess reward anticipation and reward feedback behavior while their brains were scanned using a special functional MRI (fMRI) scanner. The fMRI measures small changes in blood flow to parts of the brain. This gives an indication of the areas of the brain that are active during the task.

The standard MRI scans showed the left ventral striatum of frequent gamers contained significantly more gray matter than infrequent gamers. No differences were found in other brain regions or for white matter.

The researchers then linked the volume of gray matter in this brain region to performance on a task and found that adolescents with higher gray matter volume (the frequent gamers) were faster at making decisions. They also found that frequent gamers demonstrated higher levels of brain activity on fMRI than infrequent gamers when they lost during the tasks assessing reward anticipation and reward feedback.

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