February 8, 2012 by bnoble6
For my first article report, I will be focusing on two separate articles, which both cover the same story. The articles, from BBC News and LiveScience are reporting on the results of a recent study done by Simone Kuhn of Ghent University in Belgium. The study claims that the brains of excessive teen-age gamers are similar to those of drug addicts. The researchers studied 154 14-year old gamers who played games an average of 12 hours per week. Excessive gaming was considered anything more than nine hours a week. The study used questionnaires and functional magnetic resonance imaging to analyze the activity in various structures of the brain. The study showed that, compared with infrequent gamers, frequent gamers had a much larger ventral striatum, the reward center in the brain related to motivational and emotional aspects of the game. This area of the brain has been correlated to schizophrenia, addiction, and obsessive-compulsive behaviors. But is this research showing a direct causative link between video games and these afflictions, such as addiction, or is it just a loose correlation that many neuroscientists would dismiss as “neurobabble”?
Before fully analyzing this question, one must understand how the brain normally works, and then how it reacts to certain drugs, like cocaine, and becomes addicted to them. Under normal circumstances, when a person experiences something pleasurable, such as eating, sex, or receiving praise, a transmitting neuron releases dopamine, which then binds to dopamine receptors on the receiving neuron. Next, an action potential is sent down the receiving neuron. After this has occurred, dopamine reuptake transporters of the transmitting cell pump the dopamine back into the cell to be used again. When a drug such as cocaine is present, it binds to the dopamine reuptake transporters, and blocks them from functioning. As a result, dopamine levels increase in the synapse, and consequently, the receiving neuron is continuously stimulated.
But how does this correlate to a larger ventral striatum? It could be possible that a larger ventral striatum makes one more sensitive to the effects of dopamine, and more susceptible to addictive activities, rather they are video games or drugs. But when we directly compare the behavior of those who play video games to drug addicts, do we see the expected similarities? The American Psychiatric Association defines addiction as a “chronically relapsing disorder that is characterized by three major elements: (a) compulsion to seek and take the drug, (b) loss of control in limiting intake, and (c) emergence of a negative emotional state when access to the drug is prevented.” All of these criteria have been demonstrated in animal models with cocaine through various experiments. However, and for obvious reasons, it is much harder to convince a monkey or rat to play video games than inject them with cocaine to test these standards.
As a result, we can only use sporadic case studies to make loose hypotheses on the issue. For example, it has been shown in rat models, that after becoming addicted to cocaine, they experience the heightened pleasure and active dopaminergic reward pathway more from seeking the drug and being forced to press a lever for it, than after they actually acquire it. In my own experience playing Call of Duty, Halo, and many other games with a leveling system, I can relate to this. I constantly want to get to the next level and keep going, until I reach the top level. But once I get there, I lose most interest in the game or start over just so I can do it all again. This is known as consummatory vs. appetitive behavior. Once one becomes addicted to something, it is the consummatory aspect they find just as pleasurable as the appetitive. I believe this is why games such as Call of Duty have the “Prestige Mode”, where players can easily restart and keep playing through them over and over, and keep getting their fix per se.
Finally, in class, we discussed the perception of gamers and how they are portrayed through various avenues. This article is clearly doing gamers no favors by directly comparing them to hard drug addicts. There is a terrible social stigma around drug addicts in today’s culture and the media perpetuates that. For example, on a popular hospital T.V. drama, one doctor criticizes another for allowing a heroin addict to exchange a dirty needle, saying, “we don’t want these low-lives hanging around the hospital.” So, if living in their parents’ basement, not showering, and eating only Doritos and Mountain Dew wasn’t enough, tack on addiction.
The final point this article raises is the simple chicken or the egg argument. Are these kids playing so many video games because they have a larger ventral striatum, or do they have a larger ventral striatum because they have been playing so many video games? Obviously, it is too late to figure that out with these subjects. The only way to do so would be to conduct a long-term study, analyzing the brains of numerous individuals before, during, and after ever experiencing video games, and examine the relationship between ventral striatum size and likelihood of becoming addicted.