Compulsive Gamers Display Unusual Brain Wiring

Internet gaming disorder has been associated with neurological hyperconnectivity. GooGag/Shutterstock

A new study into the brain connectivity of adolescent boys with a condition called Internet gaming disorder (IGD) has revealed a number of irregular patterns suggesting that their brains may be wired differently to those without IGD. This, in turn, is likely to affect their cognition in a variety of ways, some of which may be beneficial while others are potentially pathological.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, IGD is a “new phenomenon” that has emerged as a result of the recent expansion of online gaming technology. Sufferers are said to “experience symptoms of withdrawal when pulled away from gaming,” due to the fact that compulsive gaming causes “certain pathways in their brains [to become] triggered in the same direct and intense way that a drug addict’s brain is affected by a particular substance.”

To learn more about how these pathways are activated, researchers from the University of Utah and Chung-Ang University sought to compare the neurological activity of 78 adolescents with IGD with that of 73 healthy subjects. All participants were between the ages of 10 and 19, and from South Korea.

The team used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to observe the connectivity between 25 different brain regions while subjects were at rest. Results indicated that patients with IGD displayed increased connectivity between seven pairs of regions, suggesting a number of potential implications for cognitive function.

For instance, the frontal eye field and auditory cortex (regions of the brain responsible for processing visual and auditory information) were found to be more strongly connected to the anterior cingulate and anterior insula, both of which are located in the so-called salience network, in IGD sufferers. Since the role of the salience network is to identify which things and events are the most important and worthy of attention, increasing these connections could have a number of beneficial implications, potentially enabling individuals to increase their cognitive efficiency.

In a statement, study co-author Jeffrey S. Anderson explained that “hyperconnectivity between these brain networks could lead to a more robust ability to direct attention toward targets, and to recognize novel information in the environment.” This is likely to improve gamers' performance when playing video games, although more importantly it could also enhance their ability to execute real-world tasks.

However, publishing their findings in the journal Addiction Biology, the researchers revealed that not all of these enhanced connections are quite so beneficial. In particular, they note that increased communication between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex – which plays an important role in working memory – and the temporoparietal junction – a brain region involved in the focusing of attention – may well produce harmful effects. For instance, over-connectivity between these regions is thought to provoke symptoms such as increased distractibility and poor impulse control, and is often seen in sufferers of psychiatric conditions including autism and schizophrenia.

Crucially, the study authors insist that it is not yet clear whether these changes are caused as a result of excessive gaming, or are due to underlying conditions that make sufferers more susceptible to compulsive game-playing. This kind of observational study does not allow for such a distinction to be made.

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