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10 Aug 2015

Can Computer Games Really Help Your Brain?

In a world that's getting more fast and furious every day, people are always looking for new ways to get ahead. While computer games have long been derided as "time wasters", according to the science, things are not quite so simple. While computer game players display enhanced visual attention abilities and improved cognitive functions, their use of navigation strategies that rely on the brain's reward system instead of the spatial memory system may increase their likelihood of developing neurological disorders.

Over the last decade, a number of studies have demonstrated the benefits of computer games, including stronger brain cell connections, better visual attention, and improved memory. This research has helped to spurn an entire industry dedicated to brain training, with the global market for "brain fitness" games worth about $1 billion and set to explode to $6 billion over the next five years. While some scientists are sceptical of this industry, others are very excited about the possibilities. 

While brain training apps are unlikely to raise your IQ or reverse age-related memory loss, game mechanics could help people with a range of psychiatric disorders. According to neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley from the University of California, brain games could help people with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, and Alzheimer's disease among other conditions. While most drugs only treat the symptoms of disease, games could help to train the brain before problems develop or worsen.  

"Most of our drugs are pretty blunt instruments." says Gazzaley, adding "By monitoring the data of each patient playing the game, doctors or psychologists could tailor the treatment on an individual basis... Instead of having a patient come in, receiving a therapeutic, like a pill, going home, and having them subjectively monitor the impact and come back months later and report that... here we have the ability to track in real time what the impact of this therapeutic is."

While medical research related to computer games is very much in its early days, gamers are already being affected by their favourite hobby. People around the world spend about three billion hours per week playing computer games, with the average 21 year old having already spent about 10,000 hours behind their screen. According to a study by the Douglas Mental Health University Institute, this time is significant, with gamers likely to experience brain improvements in some areas and deficits in others.

According to the author of the study, Dr. Gregory West, "For more than a decade now, research has demonstrated that action video game players display more efficient visual attention abilities, and our current study has once again confirmed this notion... However, we also found that gamers rely on the caudate-nucleus to a greater degree than non-gamers. Past research has shown that people who rely on caudate nucleus-dependent strategies have lower grey matter and functional brain activity in the hippocampus. This means that people who spend a lot of time playing video games may have reduced hippocampal integrity, which is associated with an increased risk of neurological disorders such as Alzheimer's disease."