A new study published today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B journal suggests that there may be a connection between frequent video game playing and neurological disorders such as Alzheimer's disease.
The study, run by Professor Greg West from the University of Montreal's department of psychology, set 26 gamers and 33 non-gamers the challenge of navigating a digital maze. The non-gamers were more likely to solve the maze using spatial reasoning - that is, they used landmarks in the maze to find their way around. The gamers, who averaged 18 hours of gaming per week, were more likely to use response learning, which means they memorised the turns and steps they took in order to complete the maze. 80.76% of action gamers used the response strategy, compared to just 42.42% of non-gamers.
So what's the brain science all about? Response learning uses the part of the brain known as the striatum, while spatial reasoning relies on the hippocampus. There is clinical evidence to suggest that there's an inverse relationship between the amount of grey matter in the two areas - those who favour the striatum have less mass in their hippocampus, which in turn is a feature in neurological disorders such as schizophrenia and dementia.
"Since 2003, research has been reporting cognitive benefits of video game playing so that we could use them to manage cognitive decline in older people or special populations [eg people with early stage dementia]," said Professor West. "People are suggesting these games are good and we're saying 'Hey, wait, there might be a serious risk with them.' I don't want to be alarmist. The message is enjoy video games, enjoy them in moderation but don't expect them to improve some sort of cognitive ability."
It's a small study, of course, and West insists more research is needed. The most obvious limitations of the test are that it doesn't show causation, only correlation. We don't know if people who favour the striatum are drawn to video games because they are methodical by nature, or if prolonged exposure to video games actually causes the loss of hippocampus tissue.
Equally, since the test only set the challenge in a game environment, it could well be that people who are used to playing games naturally solved the maze using video game strategies while non-gamers navigated the maze using visual landmarks, as they would in real life, because that's their only frame of reference.
In other words, while the tabloids will likely run with misleading GAMES CAUSE ALZHEIMER'S headlines, there does seem to be some relationship here that deserves a closer look.
UPDATE: Chris Chambers of Cardiff Univeristy's School of Psychology and Pete Etchells, lecturer in biological psychology at Bath Spa University, have already called the study into question over at The Guardian.