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Sunday, December 24, 2006

Video games may be beneficial to the brain, suggests McMaster researcher

Video games may be beneficial to the brain, suggests McMaster researcher

Sat Dec 23, 1:08 PM

By Anne-Marie Tobin

TORONTO (CP) - Video games have been maligned by many as "a mindless activity," but playing them may be good for the brain, says a researcher who is conducting studies on the possible benefits.

The research, being done at McMaster University in Hamilton, involves hooking test subjects up for a brain scan while they are given tests of their working memory - otherwise known as short-term memory.

"We've looked at a series of tasks in which video gamers and non video gamers do these memory tasks," Jim Karle, a psychology graduate student who's running the experiments, said in an interview Thursday.

"And we've been trying to determine if there's any major differences between the two groups."

The work is in its early stages, and so far he's studied 30 men who play video games and 30 others who don't, all aged between 19 and 36. He didn't enrol women in the study, suggesting it would have been more difficult to find enough who play the sort of first-person shooters and action games that he was focusing on, including "Medal of Honor" and "Half Life 2."

The two groups that were tested didn't differ in their ability to maintain something in memory, such as a 10-digit telephone number.

The differences arose when the information was manipulated and the last four digits were changed to something else, Karle said. "That manipulation is difficult because you have to drop out old numbers and bring in new numbers," he said.

"And we find that video gamers are much more accurate at that task than non video gamers."

Video game players made about eight per cent fewer errors when performing a memory manipulation task, he said, and were about 45 milliseconds faster than non-video game players.

The findings have not been published or peer-reviewed, and Karle cautioned against coming up with a take-home message at this point.

"This is a very new project, and the findings are certainly tenuous, so I wouldn't run out and tell everyone to start playing video games consistently," said Karle, 29, who concedes that he's an avid gamer himself.

He also noted that the possible downsides of playing video games aren't known yet; some studies have looked at whether they're linked to aggression or violence.

Karle said his experiments were inspired by work he's heard about at the department of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester, where PhD student Shawn Green has conducted numerous studies of gamers.

Green wasn't aware of Karle's findings but said they sound "reasonable," although he was hesitant to comment on a study that hadn't been peer-reviewed, and noted that subject selection is an important component of video gamer studies.

"Something we have to do with all our papers is make sure the effect is actually due to the game training and not due to subject selection," he said from Rochester, N.Y.

"It's always perfectly possible that people who are good at a certain task will tend to migrate towards playing video games that require these tasks, and reward being good at the tasks. And the people who are naturally bad at them will tend to stay away."

Karle said he hasn't had a chance to fully analyze the brain activity of the two groups yet.

"Overall, there's definitely differences in the brain activity between the two groups," he said. "It seems in some instances that video gamers don't have to activate as many resources as non video gamers - which would make sense, if they're finding the task easier, they probably don't have to work quite as hard."

He suggested that somewhere down the road, video games might be tailored to help the elderly keep their minds sharp.

Cheryl Grady, senior scientist at the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest in Toronto, said there are a variety of techniques to improve the memories of elderly persons.

"The big problem with this in the past has been getting it to generalize, from one thing to another," said Grady, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Toronto.

"So you can train them on one thing and make them better on that thing that you've trained them on. The question is can you train them more generally so that what you've done with them helps them in their daily lives."


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