Thursday, November 17, 2011

Gamers have bigger 'reward area' in their brain

By using a scanning technique called fMRI, scientists found that frequent gamers have a bigger ventral striatum, a brain area involved with reward. This part of the brain responds to the chemical messenger dopamine, which was already found to be involved with a feeling of reward for certain actions. In addition, they found that there are differences on a functional level as well. For example, gamers with an enlarged ventral striatum were found to have decreased deliberation times when playing a game that involved betting. It is however unknown whether gaming induces changes in the brain, or that a changed brain makes tempts people into playing games.

The ventral striatum needs dopamine to trigger the feelings of being rewarded, and the scientists noted that people in which the brain area was enlarged, also had increased levels of dopamine, which likely results in increased feelings of reward when playing games. For their experiments, the researchers scanned 154 14-year-olds with fMRI. The participants with an enlarged ventral striatum were found to have an increased number of neurons, which are the cells involved with the wiring of the brain. In addition, their activity was also higher, which can be attributed to the increased levels of dopamine that were found.
Increase in size (top) and activity (bottom)

Because the researchers did not investigate whether the enlarged ventral striatum was a cause or consequence of gaming, it is not clear what this study implies. People with an enlarged ventral striatum could be drawn towards the rewarding qualities of games, but it could very well be that playing games induces the brain changes. Further studies are required to affirm whether this is the case.

Previously, a different study already showed that gamers had increased activity in the basal ganglia, a series of brain areas involved with many functions. Amongst others, they control motor function, also by dopamine release. There is a correlation between gaming skills and the basal ganglia activity, which probably results in increased eye-hand coordination.

A part of the basal ganglia projects to the ventral striatum, which serves as its input. That means the two are connected, and dopamine is once again the messenger. Because scientists have shown in seperate studies that the two brain areas are increased in size or activity in gamers, it shows that there is a signalling network in the brain that is important for playing games: the basal ganglia for motor function and the ventral striatum for rewards. Additionally, it was already known that these two areas are part of a feedback loop, which shows that there is more to investigate when it comes to the brain's affect on games, or vice versa. 

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