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Brain structure predicts ability to learn video games


CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Researchers can predict your performance on a video game simply by measuring the volume of specific structures in your brain, a multi-institutional team reports this week.

The new study, in the journal Cerebral Cortex, found that nearly a quarter of the variability in achievement seen among men and women trained on a new video game could be predicted by measuring the volume of parts of the striatum, a collection of brain structures tucked deep inside the cerebral cortex. The study adds to the evidence that the striatum profoundly influences a person’s ability to refine his or her motor skills, learn new procedures, develop useful strategies, and adapt to a quickly changing environment.

“This is the first time that we’ve been able to take a real-world task like a video game and show that the size of specific brain regions is predictive of performance and learning rates,” said Kirk Erickson, a professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh and lead author on the study.

Ann Graybiel, an Institute Professor at MIT and an Investigator at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research; and Arthur Kramer, a professor of psychology at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois, were co-principal investigators on the study. Walter Boot, of Florida State University also contributed to the research. The study was conducted at the University of Illinois.

Past research has shown that expert video gamers outperform novices on many basic measures of attention and perception — even when novices practice the game for twenty hours or more. Those findings led researchers to explore whether pre-existing differences in brain structure play a role in video game performance.

Based on animal studies conducted by Ann Graybiel and others, the team of researchers zeroed in on three brain structures: the caudate nucleus and the putamen in the dorsal striatum, and the nucleus accumbens in the ventral striatum.

“Our animal work has shown that the striatum is a kind of learning machine — it becomes active during habit formation and skill acquisition,” Graybiel said. “So it made a lot of sense to explore whether the striatum might also be related to the ability to learn in humans.”

Half of the study participants were asked to focus on maximizing their overall score in a video game while paying equal attention to the various components of the game. The other participants had to periodically shift priorities, improving their skills in one area for a period of time while also maximizing their success at the other tasks. The latter approach, called “variable priority training,” encourages the kind of flexibility in decision-making that is commonly required in daily life, according to Kramer.

The researchers found that players who had a larger nucleus accumbens did better than their counterparts in the early stages of the training period, regardless of their training group. This makes sense, Erickson said, because the nucleus accumbens is part of the brain’s reward center, and a person’s motivation for excelling at a video game includes the pleasure that results from achieving a specific goal.

Players with a larger caudate nucleus and putamen did best on the variable priority training. Those with the largest structures “learned more quickly and learned more over the training period,” Kramer said.

“This study tells us a lot about how the brain works when it is trying to learn a complex task,” Erickson said. “We can use information about the brain to predict who is going to learn certain tasks at a more rapid rate.”

“One of the powerful message that comes out of this study is that very basic scientific research can be important in guiding work in humans,” Graybiel said. “Identifying the parts of the brain that become especially active when we learn complex tasks will help guide the development of new learning strategies in the future.”

How they did it: Researchers used high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to analyze the size of the brain regions in healthy adults who had spent less than three hours a week playing video games in the previous two years. Participants were then trained on Space Fortress, a video game developed at the University of Illinois that requires players to try to destroy a fortress without losing their own ship to one of several potential hazards.

Source: “Striatal volume predicts level of video game skill acquisition,” Erickson KI, Boot WR, Basak C, Neider MB, Prakash RS, Voss MW, Graybiel AM, Simons DJ, Fabiani M, Gratton G, Kramer AF. Cerebral Cortex. Jan. 19, 2010.

Funding: Office of Naval Research


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