Can video game addiction be seen in the brain?

Playing online games too often or for too long can have multiple and complex effects on the brain, both positive and negative. The results of a recent study published online in Addiction Biology on December 21, 2015 prove that the brains of adolescents that are dependent on internet gaming undergo certain changes. What happens in the brains of these internet game “addicts”?

Until now, there was no consensus as to the main effects of video games on brain development and psychiatric comorbidity, in other words associated disorders. For this study (in collaboration with the University of Utah School of Medicine and Chung-Ang University in South Korea), the researchers performed MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) on 78 boys aged 10 to 19, diagnosed as being dependent on online games (IGD = “Internet Gaming Disorder”) and under treatment for the disorder. These images were compared to images from a group of 73 boys presenting no signs of IGD. The team analyzed the activity in 25 paired brain areas.

Among adolescents with IGD, the results showed hyperconnectivity between several brain networks that process vision and hearing. Increased functional correlations were photographed between 7 pair of brain structures. These teens are thus more likely to have an enhanced salience network (which selects relevant stimuli), giving them better coordination between sight, hearing and movement by allowing them to focus on new and important information. Specifically, this hyperconnectivity could allow a player to react more quickly to the appearance of an opposing warrior, or in real life to respond more quickly to an unknown voice in a crowded environment. Additional studies will be required to determine if the boys with altered brain activity score better on performance tests.

As presented, these stronger functional correlations in boys suffering from IGD compared to their non-IGD counterparts may seem beneficial. But according to Jeffrey Anderson, a professor of neuroradiology and one of the study’s co-authors, "Most of the differences we see could be considered beneficial. However, the good changes could be inseparable from problems that come with them." Among participants with IGD, coordination between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the temporoparietal junction is stronger than in non-compulsive players. This could indeed increase distraction and decrease impulse control. It is exactly the type of change seen in patients suffering from neuropsychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia and autism. Current research does not allow us to determine whether boys with improved coordination are more attracted to video games or if the video games themselves increase coordination.

It should be noted that the participants in this study were examined in South Korea, a country where video games hold a predominant place among young people. The phenomenon is so prevalent that the government is supporting a number of studies on video game addiction.
Source: Doug Hyun Han, Sun Mi Kim, Sujin Bae, Perry F. Renshaw, Jeffrey S. Anderson. Brain connectivity and psychiatric comorbidity in adolescents with Internet gaming disorder. Addiction Biology, Dec 2015

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