Your mother was right.
Those first-person shooter video games are actually shrinking your brain —the hippocampus part of it, to be precise. That’s the conclusion of a new study from researchers at the Université de Montréal and McGill University who looked at the brains of people playing first-person games like Call of Duty and found that the hippocampus region of their brains, used for long-term memory and spatial navigation, was smaller than those of non-gamers, while playing platform games like SuperMario can actually cause growth to those neural regions.
The science of neuroplasticity is growing by leaps and bounds, with researchers continually finding new evidence of how the brain and its neural networks can change throughout a person’s lifetime. On that front, habitual behaviours are of special interest, as over time they can influence the development (or decline) in neural pathways through repeated activity.
From the foods we eat, to the kinds of work we do, to the way that we spend our spare time, all of it impacts brain structure, a result which was put on display by the new research which found that the type of video game played can either be beneficial or detrimental to the brain’s hippocampal system.
Researchers put 100 people who did not regularly play video games through their paces by getting them to play either action-based first-person shooter games like Call of Duty or platform-based games like SuperMario. After eight weeks of playing two to four hours a day, at least three times a week for a total of 90 hours, participants had their brains scanned to see how the two types of games differently impacted neural systems.
The results showed that grey matter in the hippocampus was reduced for the first-person action gamers whereas there was no such reduction for the Mario platform group.
“In contrast to the observation in the action training group, no negative effects on the hippocampal memory system were observed in the Mario training group,” say the study’s authors. “In fact, Mario training produced growth within the entorhinal cortex of spatial learners and in the hippocampus of response learners.”
The researchers surmise that unlike the first-person shooters, 3D platform games require different navigation skills involving memory and recognition of virtual landmarks, elements that seem to result in different growth patterns in the hippocampus.
The results are novel, say the researchers, not only in that they show that video games can have either positive or negative effects on brain development depending on the experience but that playing first-person action games could hinder development of the hippocampus, a region that has been linked to disorders like depression as well as neuro-degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. (The exact correlation between grey matter volume and brain dysfunction is still unclear, however.)
As well, the researchers point out that video games could be especially harmful to the brains of the very people who play them the most: children and teens whose brains have yet to develop to completion. “Children still play them while their brain is still in development, and this could potentially bias them toward response [learning] strategies for the rest of their life,” says Gregory West, associate professor of psychology at the Université de Montréal to CBC News.
The new research is published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.