The effects can lead to Alzheimer's, depression, schizophrenia, and more
Psychologists at the University of Montreal have discovered that action video games can cause the grey matter in your hippocampus to atrophy—the neurological version of going catabolic—and that doesn’t bode well for the millions of joystick junkies who justify unemployed eight-hour zombie-killing sessions with the predominant excuse: “Well, uh, science says there are cognitive benefits to this sick KDR!”
Okay, so before the comments section degrades into a foul-mouthed Xbox Live chatroom, we’ll note that video games do have some cognitive enhancement value. A body of research links video games to enhanced perceptual and cognitive skills, with applications in education and rehabilitation—we even use them to train endoscopic surgeons and military pilots.
The problem, according to the researchers, is that we’re using the hippocampus less than we otherwise would when we’re gaming because the persistent rewards we get from video games activate the “reward center” of the brain, the caudate nucleus, more heavily. A depleted hippocampus can lead to Alzheimer’s, depression, schizophrenia and more, says the Molecular Psychiatryreport.
Researchers rounded up 51 men and 46 women to play Call of Duty, Killzone, and Borderlands 2, plus a few Super Mario 3D games, for a combined total of 90 gaming hours. They used a virtual maze to distinguish the spatial learners—those gamers who relied on the hippocampus’ spatial memory—from response learners, who played using the reward center (the study cites previous research that shows 85 percent of gamers fall into the latter category).
By observing each gamer while he or she navigated a virtual maze, they noted that spatial learners found their way by identifying landmarks in the maze, while response learners used a sequence of left and right turns, similar to the way you’d memorize the maps within a game like Overwatch and transport yourself to the payload on mental autopilot.
After identifying the spatial learners from the response learners, researchers monitored brain images of each gamer while they played action video games and 3D games. When the response learners played action video games, their hippocampi atrophied; but when both types of gamers played 3D games, hippocampal grey matter increased in everyone.
Yet, there’s still hope for action video games, if we’re willing to rework them to be less rote memorization and more challenging to navigate.
“It remains possible that response learners could be encouraged to use spatial strategies to counteract negative effects on the hippocampal system,” says the study.
Our advice? Replace some of your gaming time with gym sessions, and bring recovery tools like the Reehut 2-in-1 Foam Roller and Triggerpoint Massage Ball to the man cave for inter-gaming recovery, because mowing down enemies and myofascial release could be the best mind-body therapy there is.