York study finds video gamers are in training for bigger tasks

Playing video games for hours on end may prepare young Billy to become a laparoscopic surgeon one day, a study from York University has shown.

The findings, published online in the journal CORTEX, demonstrate that playing video games reorganizes the brain’s activity and can lead to better control of skilled movements. Alterations to the brain’s cortical network in young men who have significant experience playing video games gives them an advantage not only in playing the games, the study concludes, but in performing other dissociated visuomotor tasks.

The most common example of a dissociated visuomotor task – in which visual information received by the brain is dissociated from the required motor action – is using a mouse while focusing on a computer screen. A much more challenging dissociated visuomotor task would be performing laparoscopic surgery.

The study’s conclusion that using gaming skills can reorganize how the brain works also offers hope for future research into the problems experienced by patients with early Alzheimer’s disease, who struggle to complete the simplest visuomotor tasks.

Above: The study compared a group of avid video gamers with those who did not have the experience of playing. Using high-resolution brain imaging, researchers were able to test how skills learned from gaming can transfer to new tasks. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The study compared a group of 13 young men in their 20s, who had played video games at least four hours a week for the previous three years and were very proficient, to a group of 13 young men who did not have that experience. After some training, the subjects were placed in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine and asked to do a series of increasingly difficult tasks, such as using a joystick or looking one way while reaching another way. The fMRI machine imaged cortical activity as their brains planned to do the tasks, so the results were not affected by any physical movement.

“By using high-resolution brain imaging (fMRI), we were able to actually measure which brain areas were activated at a given time during the experiment,” says Lauren Sergio (right), a professor in the School of Kinesiology & Health Science in York’s Faculty of Health. “We tested how the skills learned from video game experience can transfer over to new tasks, rather than just looking at brain activity while the subject plays a video game.”  

Sergio supervised the study by graduate student and lead author Joshua Granek (BSc. Spec. Hons. ’06, MSc. ’08), now a PhD student at York, and Diana Gorbet (MSc. ’02, PhD ’06), a PhD student at the time. All work in York’s Centre for Vision Research.

The parietal cortex is the part of the brain that a person typically relies on most in complex eye-hand tasks to translate what he or she sees into an action, with less reliance on the prefrontal cortex. The study found that in experienced video gamers’ brains, there is increased activity in the prefrontal cortex.

“We had noticed differences in brain activity between two gamers and other subjects in an earlier pilot study. We decided to do a study with an fMRI because we were curious about the differences in brain activity between skilled gamers and people with much less experience,” says Granek. “The video gamers exhibited increased activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is at the very front of the brain. While performing the same task, the less-experienced players – the people in the control group – used predominantly the parietal cortex, farther back.” 

In the future, it would be interesting to study if the brain pattern changes are affected by the type of video games a player has used and the actual total number of hours he has played, Granek says, and to study female video gamers, whose brain patterns in earlier studies were different than those of males.