Video gaming has become a popular activity these days. According to the 2017 report by the ESA (Entertainment software association), 67 percent of American households own a device used to play video games . Recent research shows that video games may have some positive effects on our brain. S Kühn, T Gleich, R C Lorenz, U Lindenberger & J Gallinat found that playing console games causes increases in the amount of gray matter in the brain. Craig Stark and Dane Clemenson showed that a 3D game improves memory formation. Adam Gazzaley developed a game called “NeuroRacer” and observed how it impacts cognitive skills.
Induced Structural Plasticity
Our brain has the ability to modify its structure over the course of our lifetime. This ability is called brain plasticity. Research has shown that brain plasticity affects the amount of gray matter in the brain through playing a video game for a few minutes a day .
In the research study, participants were randomly assigned to either a video game training group or a passive control group. The training group was directed to play the video game Super Mario 64 on a portable Nintendo DS XL console for at least 30 minutes a day over a period of 2 months . Participants in the training group experienced notable gray matter increases in some areas of the brain, such as the right hippocampal formation, right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and bilateral cerebellum. Gray matter is crucial for spatial navigation, strategic planning, working memory, and motor performance .
Through the analysis of these results, researchers concluded that future research should apply video game training in the clinical context to prevent against mental disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and schizophrenia .
Figure 1. "Brain regions showing a significant group (training vs control) time (pre vs post-test) interaction in gray matter volume. Bar graphs depict the interaction effects for the clusters displayed, error bars illustrate s.d., *t-test, Po0.05. DLPFC, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex; HC, hippocampal formation".
Improved Memory Formation
Playing 3D video games can boost memory formation, according to University of California, Irvine neurobiologists Craig Stark and Dane Clemenson . For their research, they recruited non-gamer college students to play either a video game with a 2D environment (Angry Birds) or one with a 3D setting (Super Mario 3D World) for 30 minutes a day over two weeks. The clear differences between 2D and 3D are complexity of the view and the amount of spatial and nonspatial information to be learned. In Super Mario 3D World, players must explore and learn an array of intricate information on each level .
Students took memory tests before and after the two week period. Then, they were given a series of pictures of everyday objects to study. Next, they were shown images of the same objects, new images, and other images that portrayed items that differed slightly from the original items. Subsequently, they were asked to categorize them all with the end goal of testing the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in the production and initial storage of memories .
The participants who played 3D video games improved their scores on the memory tests. Their memory performance increased by about 12 percent, which is the same amount by which memory performance typically decreases between the ages of 45 and 70. On the other hand, the 2D gamers did not improve their memory score results, suggesting that there was no improvement in their hippocampal memory function .
In previous studies on rodents, researchers showed that environmental enrichment resulted in the growth of new neurons that became entrenched in the hippocampus’ memory circuit and increased neuronal signaling networks.
Researchers also noted some commonalities between the 3D games that the humans played and the environment the rodents explored. 3D games have much more spatial information and complexity compared to 2D games because of the increasing amount of information there is to learn. In any case, this kind of learning and memory not only stimulates but requires the hippocampus. Essentially, the next phase in this research is uncovering which factor of the environment of 3D games stimulates the hippocampus .
Improved Cognitive Skills
A study led by neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley of the University of California, San Francisco developed a game called NeuroRacer to help elderly individuals improve their cognitive skills .
NeuroRacer is a 3D video game in which players steer a car along a winding, hilly road with their left thumb while keeping an eye out for signs that randomly pop up. If the sign is a particular shape and color, players have to shoot it down using a finger on their right hand. This multitasking exercise requires a mix of cognitive skills: attention focusing, task switching, and working memory or the ability to temporarily hold multiple pieces of information in the mind .
Gazzaley and his colleagues recruited 46 participants aged 60-85, and put them through a 4-week training period with a version of NeuroRacer . After training, participants drastically improved at the game and achieved higher scores than untrained 20-year-olds. Additionally, this increased cognitive performance skill remained six months later without practice .
Before and after training, the scientists also conducted a plethora of cognitive tests on the participants. Certain cognitive abilities, such as working memory and sustained attention, improved. Both skills are important for daily tasks, from reading a newspaper to cooking a meal . They also found that activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is associated with cognitive control, increased. Activity also increased in a neural network linking the prefrontal cortex to the back of the brain .
Several studies have shown that video games can be beneficial to us from a neuroscientific perspective. However, it is too early to conclude that spending as much time as possible on video games would be advantageous to our cognitive abilities. In fact, video games do have negative aspects. For example, some research studies imply a connection between video game addiction and mental disorders . Additionally, it is impossible to say all video games are benign, since all the research studies mentioned in this article were conducted using specific video games (Super Mario 64, Super Mario 3D World, Angry Birds and NeuroRacer). Nevertheless, playing certain video games in moderation may have positive impacts on our brain after all.
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