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Action games could put you at risk of Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia and PTSD

Shooters and other action games may harm the brain, according to new research from the University of Montréal, putting players at greater risk of mental health and neurological problems such as Alzheimer’s, post-traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia.

In the article “Impact of Videogames on Plasticity of the Hippocampus”, Greg West, an associate professor at UdeM’s psychology department, and his team claim that people who often play action and shooter games, such as Call of Duty, have a reduced amount of grey matter in their hippocampus, an area of the brain that is heavily linked to memory.

The study suggests that this depletion of grey matter might be severe enough to cause significant mental health issues and neurological illnesses. PTSD, Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia and depression are all more likely with reduced hippocampal grey matter, and so action game players may be at greater risk of such conditions.

The understanding behind the research is that such games may stimulate a different part of the brain – the caudate nucleus, which is part of our reward system for habits and needs – at the cost of development in the hippocampus. While West acknowledges previous studies suggest there are benefits to playing videogames, he argues that these may not outweigh the potential negatives it causes to the hippocampus.

The study compared different types of spatial processing players utilise (“spatial learners” and “reactive learners”), and then assessed the effect 90 hours in either an action game such as Borderlands 2, Call of Duty and Killzone, or a 3D Mario game, had on both the caudate nucleus and the hippocampus. Reactive learners, who make more use of their caudate nucleus, suffered from some levels of hippocampal atrophy, while all learners had an increase in hippocampal grey matter after 90 hours with a Mario game.

In the full paper (published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry), West admits that further research will be required to fully understand the impact this reduction of grey matter has on long-term cognitive health. He also states that other genres of games, such as RTS, were not assessed, and so their impact is still unknown.

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