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Anna Karamazina

26.11.2022 15:00

Video game playing children have different brain activity, which signals enhanced cognitive capacity

According to research on brain imaging that was published in JAMA Network Open, children's cognitive development may benefit from playing video games. Children who regularly played video games outperform peers on two cognitive tests, according to the study, and their cortical activation patterns in areas of the brain associated with attention, memory, and visual processing were also affected.

Youth are more likely than ever to play video games, according to polls, and the majority of kids and teenagers do. The brain goes through a lot of changes during these early years, which makes experts wonder if playing video games can affect kids' cognitive development.

There is some evidence of positive impacts, but research on the relationship between video gaming and cognition has been mostly equivocal. Particularly, research has suggested that playing video games may have advantages on attention and working memory.

By including neuroimaging data—something few other researchers have done—study author Bader Chaarani and his team hoped to expand on prior findings. The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, a long-term investigation of brain growth and kid health in the United States, provided the researchers with the data they needed. They concentrated on information from the baseline evaluation for the study, which led to a final sample of 2,217 kids between the ages of 9 and 10.

As a lifelong gamer and co-investigator in the ABCD project, Chaarani, an assistant professor at the University of Vermont, was naturally interested in examining in a large sample of youngsters how video gaming is connected with brain function and cognition.  Researchers  followed these gamers from 9 and 10 years old through adolescence and young adulthood using the extensive longitudinal ABCD research dataset and looked at how video games affected many factors including brain function, neurocognition, mental health, and behavior.

The kids engaged in two mental exercises while getting functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). These included the working memory test n-back task and the inhibitory control test stop signal task (SST). With separate questions for playing video games and viewing movies, the kids also disclosed how many hours each day they spend using screens.

The researchers investigated whether the performance and brain activation patterns of video gamers (children who played for three or more hours per day) and non-video gamers (children who played for zero hours per day) varied during the cognitive tasks.

First, it was discovered that video gamers performed better both on the stop signal task and the n-back assignment than non-video gamers did. Then, it was discovered that the BOLD (blood oxygen level dependent) activity in particular brain regions varied among the video players. Specifically, during the task that assessed inhibitory control, the gamers had an improved BOLD signal in certain regions of the precuneus. The  part of the brain called precuneus is thought to have a role in processes including attention, memory, and information integration.

The occipital parts of the brain, which process visual information, had a decreased BOLD signal in the gamers during the working memory exercise. This may indicate that playing video games improved brain functionality in the visuomotor regions. Additionally, the precuneus, middle and frontal gyri, and the cingulate revealed greater activity.

According to Chaarani's research, playing video games may improve working memory and response speeds as well as alter how some parts of the brain process vision, attention, and memory, according to PsyPost.

Even after accounting for behavioral issues and mental diseases as possible confounders, these findings were still substantial. Importantly, the results remained significant even when video viewing was taken into account (e.g., time spent watching YouTube videos), indicating that the variations in brain activation were more concentrated in video gaming than in video watching.

The results suggest contrary to other research that claimed that gaming has a negative impact on cognition, Chaarani stated.

Given that different forms of video games (such as action-adventure games, shooter games, and single-player vs multiplayer games) may have varied impacts on cognition, one significant weakness of the study was the lack of information regarding the genre of video games played. 

The overall results imply that playing video games is associated with enhanced performance on cognitive tasks involving working memory and response inhibition. According to Chaarani and his colleagues, future ABCD data releases will allow researchers to test for longitudinal effects in which video gaming can enhance response inhibition, working memory, and other cognitive skills.  Future study will enable scientists to assess any behavioral or neurocognitive alterations that could be connected to adolescent video gaming.

Researchers Bader Chaarani, Joseph Ortigara, DeKang Yuan, Hannah Loso, Alexandra Potter, and Hugh P. Garavan authored a study titled "Association of Video Gaming With Cognitive Performance Among Children."

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