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Video Games And Being All Thumbs May Not Be A Good Thing

by Daniel Amen M.D.

The brain is involved in everything we do. Wherever there are human stories the brain is involved. From the impact of war and natural disasters on the brain to drug abuse scandals to courtroom dramas to politics the brain is in the news, and you can read about it here.

The brain is everywhere there is news about people. This week I had lunch with a friend who was concerned that her husband allowed their son to play video games for an extended period of time. As a father of three children and a child psychiatrist I have thought a lot about video games over the past 15 years. At first, I found them great fun to play; then I started to worry. Here’s why: People playing action video games have been studied using brain imaging techniques that look at blood flow and activity patterns. Video games have been found to work in an area of the brain called the caudate nucleus, one of the pleasure centers in the brain. In fact, it is the same part of the brain that lights up when we inject a person with cocaine.

My experience with patients, and one of my own children, is that they tend to get hooked on the games and play so much that it can deteriorate their school work and social time. Like a drug, some children and adults actually get hooked on them. There is also a scientific literature that reports video games may increase seizure frequency in people who are sensitive to them.

You may remember in December 1997 there was a Japanese Nintendo cartoon that had an explosion of red, white and yellow lights that trigger 730 Japanese children to have new onset seizures. The condition is called photosenstive seizures (seizures triggered by light). I often think video games trigger subclinical seizures in vulnerable kids and adults causing behavior or learning problems.

I recently had a patient who I have been treating for several years. It took me quite a while to get his meds and school situation stabilized. He was doing great! Then he went to stay with his dad for 3 weeks and he totally relapsed (dad let him watch all the TV and play all the video games he wanted). This 11 year old boy reverted to his nasty behavior and actually started to pull out his own hair (a sign of anxiety and compulsiveness). When we stopped both TV and video games he quickly improved.

In another study, video games were found to increase the thumb representation in the brain. That may be helpful if we were monkeys in trees, but not much use to humans who need their brains for other functions. When Nintendo came into my home when my son was in the 6th grade (15 years ago). I noticed over time that he played more and more, even when he was told to stop, his grades went down and his level of defiance went up. After 2 years of difficult behavior I took the games out of the house. Thankfully, my girls have never been very interested.

There you have it — one child psychiatrist’s view of video games. I do not think they give kids or adults any long term value. They do not help you get most jobs and I think they train the brain to need more and more stimulation to be able to focus. There are many reasons why the incidence in learning and behavior problems has doubled in the last 20 years; I believe video games may be part of the puzzle.

As a neuropsychiatrist for the past 20 years my clinics have amassed the world’s largest database of brain scans related to behavior, more than 21,000. The brain is involved in everything we do and must be considered whenever we look at the motivation or reason behind human behavior.

You can see over 300 color 3D brain SPECT images at www.brainplace.com.

Daniel Amen, M.D. Amen Clinics, Inc.
Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry
and Human Behavior UC,
Irvine School of Medicine

Amen Clinics, Inc.
4019 Westerly Place,
Suite 100
Newport Beach, CA 92660
Phone: (949) 266-3726
Fax: (949) 266-3766

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