Those addictive video games that keep players glued to the screen may actually do the brain some good — or one of them does, anyway. A new study from the journal Molecular Psychiatrydigs into the effect of video game play on the volume of the brain’s gray matter — the tissue responsible for muscle control, memory, language and sensory perception.
Researchers from Berlin’s Max Planck Institute for Human Development and St. Hedwig-Hospital recruited adult subjects to play Mario 64 on Nintendo’s portable DS system for 30 minutes per day for two months. At the end of that time, the gaming subjects showed “significant gray matter increase” in both the bilateral hippocampus and portions of the right prefrontal cortex.
The hippocampus, a crucial horseshoe-shaped region of the brain straddling both hemispheres, is responsible for memory formation, as well as connecting sensory information (smells, sounds, etc.) to memories. Mario 64 calls upon players to maneuver the titular character through a simulated three-dimensional space. One of the Nintendo DS’s split-screens is used to provide players with Mario’s position on a map, while the other displays the first-person perspective of the game character. The brain gains were associated with the players getting better at Mario 64, moving from a reliance on the first-person perspective (which the study calls an “egocentric” spatial strategy) to a more overarching (referred to as “allocentric”) strategy that switches between the map and Mario’s view.
Interestingly, the researchers also found a correlation between subjects’ desire to play the game and the gains in gray matter volume. The effect of gameplay on players’ gray matter was especially pronounced for those who said they liked playing the game. Researchers speculated that this has to do with the brain’s reward system, which releases dopamine when a person is enjoying an activity. This dopamine might in turn enhance gray matter — effectively creating a feedback loop.
Further research could spur the development of gameplay therapies for post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia and neurodegenerative diseases, the study concluded.