Those annoying gripes from your parents were true: your habitual obsession with first-person shooter video games could be harming your brain and, worse, putting you at risk for psychiatric illnesses including depression and Alzheimer’s disease.
A study published Tuesday by two Montreal researchers in the academic journal Molecular Psychiatry appears to be the first to show conclusive evidence of grey matter loss in the hippocampus, a part of the brain that is crucial for orientation and memory, as a result of direct interaction with video games.
Lead author Greg West, an associate professor of psychology at the Université de Montréal, and McGill University associate professor of psychiatry Véronique Bohbot conducted the four year neuroimaging study on 100 adults with no history of regular video game playing.
After 90 hours of playing popular shooting games including Call of Duty, Killzone, Medal of Honor and Borderlands 2, brain scans tended to show subjects suffered a loss of grey matter in the hippocampus.
According to the report, the loss of grey matter as a result of playing action games happens because it stimulates a different part of the brain, the caudate nucleus, more than it does the hippocampus.
According to the study, 85 per cent of players rely on the caudate nucleus — which is responsible for forming habits and takes part in the brain’s “reward system” — when gaming.
And the more a gamer uses their caudate nucleus, the less they use their hippocampus, which according to the new study, causes that part of the brain to lose cells and atrophy.
The more depleted the hippocampus becomes, the more a person is at risk of developing brain illnesses and diseases including depression, schizophrenia, PTSD and Alzheimer’s disease.
“Video games have been shown to benefit certain cognitive systems in the brain, mainly related to visual attention and short-term memory,” said West. “But there is also behavioural evidence that there might be a cost to that, in terms of the impact on the hippocampus.”
Not all games, according to the study, have this negative impact: when research subjects played 3D games from the Super Mario series, which emphasize spatial orientation, it actually increased grey matter in their hippocampus.
For this reason, while the researchers caution against excessive playing of action video games, in particular by children, young adults and older adults populations with cognitive issues, they also say the design of first-person shooter and action games could be changed to promote a better balance of brain activity.
“Because spatial strategies were shown to be associated with increases in hippocampal grey matter during video game playing, it remains possible that response learners could be encouraged to use spatial strategies to counteract against negative effects on the hippocampal system,” the study reads.