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Violent Video Games Affect Teenage Brain

Long-Term Effects Still Unknown
WebMD Health News

Dec. 2, 2002 (Chicago) -- Before heading out to the mall with a list of must-have video games for holiday gifts, consider this new report from brain researchers: While your teens are entertaining themselves with violent video games, those games are changing the way their brain cells work.

Moreover, results of high-tech brain scans suggest that there are structural differences in the brains of teens that have been diagnosed with disruptive behavior disorders, or DBD. Typically these are teens that "act out aggressively against animals, destroy property, or have fights with other teens," says Vincent P. Mathews, MD, professor of radiology and chief of neuroradiology at the Indiana University School of Medicine, Indianapolis.

He tells WebMD that tracking brain activity in these disruptive teens revealed that violent video games changed the patterns of brain activity in ways that "were especially troubling," but even normal teens "have brain function changes associated with violent video games."

The aggressive teens had less overall activity in the area of the brain that controls emotions, impulses, and attention. AndMathews says the impact of the violent video games is more pronounced among high users of video games. He defines high users as kids who "are playing these games for several hours every day."

He says his research marks the first time that "we were able to demonstrate different brain activation patterns that are triggered by these video games." He says, too, that even normal teens had changes in brain activity linked to "their long-term exposure to violent television, movies and games."

But Mathews, who presented his research at the 88th Scientific Assembly and Annual Meeting of the Radiological Society of North America, says his research is still preliminary and he doesn't know if these "changes in brain activity" are permanent or whether the changes will have long-term effects on behavior.

Mathews studied teens diagnosed with disruptive behavior disorders as well as normal adolescents. He focused his attention on the regions of the brain called the frontal lobes, which control emotions, attention, and inhibition. He used a high-tech type of brain imaging called functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI to track the way nerve cells in the brain send messages in response to different scenes from video games.

In his experiment, he used a nonviolent car racing game and a violent action game based on the James Bond character from popular spy novels and movies. Just to be sure that the adolescent volunteers were "fully engaged" in the video, Mathews asked them to "push a button each time a person was shot or each time the car negotiated a turn." The adolescents viewed the video while lying inside the MRI that recorded the firing of nerves in the brain.

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