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Study: Playing video games can increase brain size

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Playing video games can increase brain volume in regions of the brain responsible for spatial navigation, strategic planning, memory and motor skills, according to a new study from research centers in Berlin.

The study, which appears in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, was conducted by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and Charité University Medicine St. Hedwig-Krankenhaus. The study's authors wanted to look into the ways that video games can affect cerebral structural plasticity (the brain's ability to change its physical structure over time), since playing games is a "highly pervasive activity, providing a multitude of complex cognitive and motor demands" that "can be seen as an intense training of several skills," according to the authors.

In order to investigate this, the researchers asked 23 adults with an average age of 24 to play Super Mario 64 for at least half an hour a day, every day for two months. Compared to a control group of individuals who did not play any games during the study, the gamers evinced "significant gray matter increase" in three areas of the brain: the right hippocampal formation, right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and bilateral cerebellum.

Those regions of the brain are responsible for functions such as "spatial navigation, strategic planning, working memory and motor performance." And according to the study, the changes were more noticeable as the participants' desire to play the game increased.

"While previous studies have shown differences in brain structure of video gamers, the present study can demonstrate the direct causal link between video gaming and a volumetric brain increase. This proves that specific brain regions can be trained by means of video games," said Simone Kühn, senior scientist at the Center for Lifespan Psychology at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, and the leader of the study.

The researchers also believe the results of the study mean that playing video games could help sufferers of diseases that shrink the brain, such as Alzheimer's. Earlier this year, a different study directly examined the ways in which playing games affects elderly individuals.

Thanks for the tip, Jeff P.