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PROVEN: Violent video games mess with your head

Brain boffins show how shooters deaden your soul

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In the never-ending battle over whether violent video games incite impressionable gamers to commit unspeakable acts – or, at minimum, become obnoxious – hardware-wielding brain boffins have pried into young men's heads and discovered that, yes, digital mayhem alters your brain.

"For the first time," said researcher Dr. Yang Wang of the Indiana University School of Medicine, "we have found that a sample of randomly assigned young adults showed less activation in certain frontal brain regions following a week of playing violent video games at home."

And not just any frontal brain regions. "These brain regions are important for controlling emotion and aggressive behavior," said Wang.

The study – the results of which were presented this week at the the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America – involved "22 healthy adult males" between the ages of 18 and 29 who had little past experience with violent video games.

These manly fellows were dived into two equal groups. One was instructed to play a first-person shooter for 10 hours during one week, then leave it alone for a second week; the other abstained from simulated shoot-'em-ups. (Possibly they indulged in a wee bit of Angry Birds or Tiny Wings, but the researchers didn't say.)

Before the two-week period began, each participant underwent a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brainscan to establish a baseline. A follow-up fMRI scan was then performed one week into the study, and another at the end of the two-week period.

In a nutshell, an fMRI reveals activity – or lack of it – in specific regions of the brain by detecting oxygen levels in the blood in those regions. Since neuroscientists have been increasingly able to map brain regions to emotional and cognitive functions, an fMRI can detect what's going on inside a subject's noggin.

And for defenders of the position that violent video games have no effect on "healthy adult males", what Wang and his team discovered was not good news.

During the fMRI sessions both groups were given an "emotional interference task" designed to detect their response to words describing violent actions, as well as a "cognitive inhibition" task designed to detect, well, inhibited cognition.

After one week of playing violent video games, the first group showed lower activity in their left inferior frontal lobes – associated with empathy – when involved in the emotional task. The fMRI also detected less activity in the game-players' anterior cingulate cortexes – associated with conflict monitoring, error detection, and emotional control – during the cognitive task.

After not playing for the second week, the effects were diminished, but not eliminated entirely.

"These findings indicate that violent video game play has a long-term effect on brain functioning," Wang concluded.

The argument over whether or not violent video games alter your behavior is certain to continue, but the work of Wang and his team add significant support to the argument that they do, indeed, alter your brain. ®

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