Video games have evolved from a childhood activity to a pastime for adults. These games are becoming more common and enjoyed in old age, outselling music and film. Now, a study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found playing video games can shape the brain — for better or for worse.

"We focused on how the brain reacts to video game exposure, but these effects do not always translate to real-life changes," said Marc Palaus, first author of the study, in a statement.

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Researchers from Open University of Catalonia in Spain and Massachusetts General Hospital noted gamers experience a change in brain activity, and even structure. In the systematic review, playing video games was found to affect attention with gamers showing improvements in sustained attention and selective attention. Moreover, brain regions involved in attention were more efficient in gamers, requiring less activation to stay focused on demanding tasks.

Playing video games requires a high level of attention and hand-eye coordination. Over time, the part of the brain that looks after attention span and hand-eye coordination is able to communicate better, and perform at a higher level among gamers. They enhance the functionality of the brain, and even alter the size of structures related to visuospatial skills.

The brain's right hippocampus — associated with complex learning and memory — was enlarged in both long-term gamers and volunteers following a video game training program. Video games that involve some problem solving and some more spatially complex tasks train the hippocampus to remember things like lost keys or new names. This helps gain more memory muscle.

The researchers also focused on the possible negative effects of gaming — addiction. The team found functional and structural changes in the neural reward system in gaming addicts. They monitored gamers' neural responses when exposed to gaming cues that cause cravings.

For example, frequent gamers tend to be faster at making decisions while playing, and their brains tend to show more activity in the reward circuit when they lose. This suggests losing is seen as a reward for frequent gamers, because it entices them to keep on playing, even if they keep losing. This triggers an addictive behavior.

Previous research done by Iowa State University found roughly 8.5 percent of children who play video games in the U.S. are addicted. Across the world, estimates of gaming addiction in children were between 4 and 10 percent. Researchers believe the technology's increased availability is a risk factor for addiction.

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Upon analyzing results from 116 scientific studies, (22 looked at structural changes in the brain, and 100 looked at changes in brain functionality and/or behavior) Palaus and his colleagues agree video games are still new; this means research on what aspects of games affect which brain regions and how is still in its infancy.

"It's likely that video games have both positive (on attention, visual and motor skills) and negative aspects (risk of addiction), and it is essential we embrace this complexity," he said.

Overall, it seems video games influence our brain in both both beneficial and harmful ways.

Source: Palaus M, Marron EM, Viejo-Sobera R et al. Neural Basis of Video Gaming: A Systematic Review. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 2017.

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