According to scans of nearly 200 adolescent boys, the brains of compulsive video gamers are wired differently from the norm. Researchers have found evidence of hyperconnectivity between certain areas of the brain, as well as increased levels of distractibility.
The study focused on boys aged 10 to 19 seeking professional help for Internet gaming disorder - the condition has been listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as needing further research, and typically involves gamers who give up sleeping and eating in order to keep playing. Brain scans of those with the disorder were compared with another group of boys who aren't addicted to video games to see how the neural activities matched up.
The MRI scans found enhanced coordination in the 'salience network' part of the gamers' brains: that's the area responsible for identifying what's important and focusing the body's resources on it. In everyday life, it could be stepping out of the way of an approaching car; in the video game world it could mean dodging a hail of digital bullets.
"Hyperconnectivity between these brain networks could lead to a more robust ability to direct attention toward targets, and to recognise novel information in the environment," said lead author Jeffrey Anderson from the University of Utah. "The changes could essentially help someone to think more efficiently."
The scientists also found increased coordination between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and temporoparietal junction in the brain, which is a more troubling finding - links like this are associated with schizophrenia, Down's syndrome, and autism, and are also found in people with poor impulse control. This could point to hardened video gamers being more easily distracted and less self-disciplined.
Right now though, we don't know whether years of playing video games have caused these changes, or whether these differences in the brain's internal wiring came first and then led to the participants being drawn towards gaming. Further research and performance tests are necessary before a clearer picture emerges of the long-term effects of excessive video gaming on the mind.
"Most of the differences we see could be considered beneficial," says Anderson. "However the good changes could be inseparable from problems that come with them."
The academics behind the new research say it's the most comprehensive study yet of the differences in the brains of compulsive video gamers - it joins a growing body of research looking at how this part of our digital lifestyles could be affecting our physical and mental health in both positive and negative ways.
The findings have been published in the journal Addiction Biology.