No, playing video games won’t give you Alzheimer’s

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There have been some terribly scary headlines in the media lately, linking video games with neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s. Some have even gone so far as to say stuff like “Call of Duty increases risk of Alzheimer’s disease.” It’s all stemming from a study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, that claims that people who play games use a specific part of the brain, which in turn causes another part to shrink, which could lead to neurological disorders. Is it true? Could playing games gives you Alzheimer’s? Maybe. I’ve read through all of the research, but I’ve forgotten.

In a study conducted amongst a group of 26 gamers who spent at least 6 hours a week playing games and 33 non gamers, they found that gamers used the caudate nucleus more than those who didn’t. Apparently, people who use that bit of the brain more have lower grey matter, have rubbish hippocampuses and are at higher risk for neurological diseases.

“For more than a decade now, research has demonstrated action video game players display more efficient visual attention abilities. Our current study again confirms this notion,” said Gregory West, assistant professor at the University of Montreal in Canada.

“We, however, also found action video game players use navigation strategies that rely on the caudate nucleus to a much greater degree than non video game players.

“Past research has shown people who rely on caudate nucleus dependent strategies have lower grey matter and functional brain activity in the hippocampus.

“People who spend a lot of time playing video games may have reduced hippocampal integrity, which is associated with an increased risk of neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.”

It all seems like an enormous leap of logic to me. The Guardian agrees, shooting down what I’d call an absurd hypothesis based on faulty logic. Here’s what the Guardian says:

“In fact, the researchers didn’t look at dementia or perform any clinical tests. But they nevertheless embark on a series of logical leaps, which go like this:

1. The type of learning shown by the gamers has been associated in previous studies with increased use of a brain region called the caudate nucleus

2. Increased use of the caudate nucleus can be associated with reduced volume of the hippocampus

3. Reduced volume of the hippocampus can be associated with increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease

4. Therefore (take a deep breath) video gaming could increase risk of Alzheimer’s disease.”

Correlation and causation and all of that. Some other scientist people have also taken umbrage with the study.

Tim Parry from Alzheimer’s Research UK said the research couldn’t come to a firm conclusion.

“The risk factors for Alzheimer’s and other causes of dementia are varied and complex, but this study does not add Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto to that list,” he said. “This study focused on a specific navigation task in young adults and did not look long term at memory and thinking skills, so we cannot draw any conclusions about video games and dementia risk.

We do know that a healthy diet and plenty of exercise are both important for reducing dementia risk.”

Likewise, Professor Chris Chambers, a Cardiff University brain scientist, said while the study did show that gamers solve problems differently, linking games with Alzheimer’s is pure conjecture.

“What this study tells us is that gamers, not surprisingly, learn to pay attention differently to non-gamers. But the study doesn’t show that gamers have a shrunken hippocampus or that they are more prone to brain diseases. The researchers didn’t study MRI scans, but even if they did, drawing conclusions about Alzheimer’s disease we would require us to track gamers and non-gamers into older age and compare rates of diagnosis.What the researchers propose is an interesting conjecture but it remains a conjecture.”

Last Updated: May 21, 2015

Geoffrey Tim

Editor. I'm old, grumpy and more than just a little cynical. One day, I found myself in possession of a NES, and a copy of Super Mario Bros 3. It was that game that made me realise that games were more than just toys to idly while away time - they were capable of being masterpieces. I'm here now, looking for more of those masterpieces.

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