Gamer’s brain: hyperconnected but easily distracted

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Researchers have measured intriguing differences in the brain connectivity of individuals with the most modern of psychological conditions – Internet gaming disorder.

[Man playing computer game]
Obsessive gamers’ brains show distinct connective differences compared with non-gamers.

The results from gamers’ brain scans are mixed – some good, some bad, but significant differences in connectivity were found between chronic computer game users and non-addicted people of equivalent age.

Some of the differences in connectivity might prove useful for quickly responding to new information. Others, however, are likely to generate distractibility and a poor standard of control over one’s impulses.

The research, published in Addiction Biology, was a joint effort between the University of Utah School of Medicine and Chung-Ang University in South Korea.

The study involved taking magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of 78 males aged 10-19. The participants were all seeking treatment for Internet gaming disorder (IGD). The resultant findings were compared with 73 MRI investigations of boys without the disorder.

Internet gaming disorder

Internet gaming is a relatively new concept, but it has careered into the limelight in the past decade. In the People’s Republic of China alone, the market is worth an estimated $12 billion. Globally, in 2012, more than a billion people played computer games.

Perhaps it is not surprising that something as universally prevalent and purposefully all-consuming as gaming has brought with it a new type of psychological disorder.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th Edition (DSM-5) is the official manual of psychological illnesses used by clinicians. In the most recent edition, IGD is not listed; they consider it “a condition warranting more clinical research” before its inclusion.

IGD is much more than having a strong predilection to Internet gaming. Individuals with IGD play games on the Internet to the detriment of other more important areas of their life.

For instance, someone with IGD might neglect their health, their family and friends. School or work life will be negatively impacted and, if they are pulled away from gaming, they experience withdrawals. Those with IGD might almost entirely give up on sleeping and eating in favor of gaming.

The majority of research in this area to date comes from young males in Asia, where the disorder is most commonly found.

Changes in connectivity

The team looked at 300 potential connectivity pairings between 25 pairs of brain structures. The more regularly that the two brain regions lit up in unison, the stronger their connectivity.

Regarding the differences between IGD and non-gamers’ brains, lead author Dr. Jeffrey Anderson, associate professor of neuroradiology at the University of Utah School of Medicine, says:

“Most of the differences we see could be considered beneficial. However, the good changes could be inseparable from problems that come with them.”

One of the potentially positive differences in the gamers’ brains was an enhancement in the vision and hearing processing sections of the salience network.

The salience network helps prime a person for important upcoming events; it picks the crucial sights or sounds out of the huge array of information that our brains constantly receive and gives them priority in our attention.

The salience network, as its name hints, enables us to focus on the most salient available information. It readies us for an attack from an enemy spacecraft firing lasers from the left of screen, or, in real life, an errant ball heading toward our face, for instance.

There are obvious benefits to be had from an enhancement in a network of this type. However, stronger connectivity between two other areas is more worrying. Increased conversations between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and temporoparietal junction were uncovered.

“Having these networks be too connected may increase distractibility,” says Dr. Anderson.

Similar increases in connectivity have been measured in patients with Down’s syndrome, schizophrenia, autism and also in people with less control over their impulses.

Adding complexity to a complex problem

IGD is a relatively new condition, and research into its etiology is in its infancy. Having said that, there is already a wealth of information in the literature regarding potential alterations in the IGD brain.

Neuroimaging studies have found differences in the frontal and striatal regions, a decrease in the availability of certain dopamine receptors and dopamine transporters in the basal ganglia. Also, grey matter changes have been spotted in the prefrontal cortex. Now, the salience network is implicated.

The next question will be even more difficult to answer: does obsessive gaming change the wiring of the brain, or was it a difference in the wiring that drove these individuals to game obsessively in the first instance?

The positive and negative implications of gaming will, undoubtedly, slowly reveal themselves over time. Medical News Today recently covered research that investigated whether playing 3D video games could help boost memory.