Study: Teenage Video Game Players Have Brains ‘Like Gambling Addicts’

Teenage video game players have brains ‘like gambling addicts’ (Daily Mail, Nov. 15, 2011):

Teenagers who spend hours playing video games may have a similar brain structure to gambling addicts, research suggests.

In a study of 14-year-olds, those who played frequently had a larger ‘reward centre’ in their brains than those who played less often.

Brain scans showed those who played for more than nine hours a week produced more of the ‘feel-good’ chemical dopamine.

They produced even more when they were losing, an effect seen in pathological gamblers which is thought to be what prevents them from stopping when they are on a losing streak.

Playing video games was also shown to reduce decision time – a key skill for being good at them – which is also a characteristic of gamblers.

The researchers do not know whether gaming causes the brain to change, or whether people are born with this brain structure which makes them want to spend hours playing.

But they say it is a crucial first step in understanding whether video games could be addictive.

This study, published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, is the first to connect frequent video gaming with differences in both brain structure and activity.

Dr Simon Kuhn of Ghent University in Belgium and colleagues in the UK and Germany analysed brain scans of more than 150 teenagers who were classified as playing video games either moderately or a lot.

Those who played a lot had a larger ventral striatum, the reward area which is activated when we experience pleasure, for example by winning money, eating chocolate or having sex.

The researchers wrote: ‘These findings demonstrate that the ventral striatum plays a significant role in excessive video-game playing and contributes to our understanding of behavioural addiction.’

Video-gaming has become hugely popular in recent years. The average teenager in the study, which was carried out in Germany, played for one and a half hours a day during the week and 2.3 hours at the weekend.

Whether excessive video-gaming should be classified as an addiction or even a mental illness is a matter of intense debate among experts, with increasing consensus that gambling can be as addictive as illegal drugs. Dr Luke Clark, who researches gambling at Cambridge University, said: ‘The ventral striatum is at the heart of the reward system and that puts video gaming into the context of addictions.

‘We know the brain can change in adulthood, but the burning question is whether the video gaming is the cause or the effect, and that still needs to be answered.’

He added that despite claims that video games can have a positive effect on motor skills, there appeared to be no change in these areas of the brain in the frequent gamers.

Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones, a neuroscientist at Imperial College London, said the study would ‘further close the gap’ between compulsive video gaming and other addictions to ‘give us a better understanding of possible long-term treatment interventions’.

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