Video gamers: Size of brain structures predicts success

January 20, 2010, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
MRI scans reveal the brain structures analyzed in this study: nucleus accumbens (orange), putamen (red), caudate nucleus (blue), and hippocampus (green). Credit: Cerebral Cortex. Rights-protected image. Contact Oxford University Press.

( -- 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 , 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 three structures in their brains.

The study adds to the evidence that specific parts of the striatum, a collection of distinctive tissues tucked deep inside the cerebral cortex, profoundly influence 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 regions is predictive of performance and learning rates on this video game," said Kirk Erickson, a professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh and first author on the study. Ann Graybiel, an Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Investigator in 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.

Research has shown that expert video gamers outperform novices on many basic measures of attention and perception, but other studies have found that training novices on video games for 20 or more hours often yields no measurable cognitive benefits.

These contradictory findings suggest that pre-existing individual differences in the brain might predict variability in learning rates, the authors wrote.

The video game Space Fortress, developed at the University of Illinois, can be manipulated to test various aspects of cognition. Credit: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Animal studies conducted by Graybiel and others led the researchers to focus 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."

The caudate (CAW-date) nucleus and putamen (pew-TAY-min) are involved in motor learning, but research has shown they are also important to the cognitive flexibility that allows one to quickly shift between tasks. The nucleus accumbens (ah-COME-bins) is known to process emotions associated with reward or punishment.

The researchers began with a basic question about these structures, Kramer said: "Is bigger better?"

They used high-resolution Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to analyze the size of these brain regions in 39 healthy adults (aged 18-28; 10 of them male) who had spent less than three hours a week playing video games in the previous two years. The volume of each brain structure was compared to that of the brain as a whole.

Participants were then trained on one of two versions of 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.

Half of the study participants were asked to focus on maximizing their overall score in the game while also paying 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, Kramer said. Studies have shown that variable priority training is more likely than other training methods to improve those skills people use every day.

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 includes the pleasure that results from achieving a specific goal. This sense of achievement and the emotional reward that accompanies it is likely highest in the earliest stages of learning, he said.

Players with a larger caudate nucleus and putamen did best on the variable priority training.

"The putamen and the caudate have been implicated in learning procedures, learning new skills, and those nuclei predicted learning throughout the 20-hour period," Kramer said. The players in which those structures were largest "learned more quickly and learned more over the training period," he 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." Such information might be useful in education, where longer training periods may be required for some students, or in treating disability or dementia, where information about the affected by injury or disease could lead to a better understanding of the skills that might also need attention, he said.

More information: The paper, Striatal Volume Predicts Level of Video Game Skill Acquisition, is available online -- doi:10.1093/cercor/bhp293

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1 / 5 (5) Jan 20, 2010
I'm not sure I can buy into this research. This would tend to make one believe that since men have a larger cranial volume that they would have a competitive edge against women with naturally smaller brain structure volumes, and that just is not the case.
4.3 / 5 (6) Jan 20, 2010

Statistically speaking, on average, men DO have a competitive edge against women.

What's there to 'buy in to' anyway, results are results, they exist, they can't just not exist because you don't 'like' them. At best the interpretation of the results is open for debate, as usual.
1 / 5 (1) Jan 20, 2010
"I'm not sure I can buy into this research. This would tend to make one believe that since men have a larger cranial volume that they would have a competitive edge against women with naturally smaller brain structure volumes, and that just is not the case."

- that's why there are so many women in formula one racing..
1 / 5 (3) Jan 20, 2010
- that's why there are so many women in formula one racing..

That's why there are so many female senators, or female CEOs, or other comments you could make that have absolutely nothing to do with reality.

Statistically speaking, on average, men DO have a competitive edge against women.
Not in problem solving or fine motor control.
not rated yet Jan 20, 2010
I don't know but I'm betting they aren't compensating the female racer(s) with added weight considering they weigh a lot less than most men and weight is important in a light racecar. That alone could provide a woman with a competative edge instead of skill. Jockeys aren't small for nothing.
5 / 5 (1) Jan 20, 2010
This research isn't complete. I think good gamers brain structures grow bigger from playing games. I think genius is a result of the choices we make in life. I believe we re-wire our brains constantly. When someone dedicates all their thoughts to something it changes their brain. That is what Einstein did when he developed his theories and think it changed his brain structures to deal with the problems he was trying to solve. I think it's the same for a good mathmatician, if they constantly think about math and do math the brain changes to do it better. We are what we think and stupidity is a choice not a genetic difference in most cases.
4 / 5 (1) Jan 20, 2010
Hey, maybe MRI measurements can replace IQ tests and SAT scores!

That would give me more time to play video games... ;-)
not rated yet Jan 20, 2010
Why not use whats on the market already as well? Why invent your own and only test that? I would think, game genre depending migh tmake a difference as well.
not rated yet Jan 20, 2010
Playing a 2 d shooter is not a "complex task"...try Fifa 10 with the silly amount of complexity in controls.
not rated yet Jan 20, 2010
Such information might be useful in education, where longer training periods may be required for some students

I smell distinction here based on something we can't see, control or do anything about. Imagine schools rejecting applications or grading students based on the size of their hippocampus!
not rated yet Jan 20, 2010
stupidity is a choice not a genetic difference

Sounds very reasonable and looks like a great quote!
not rated yet Jan 21, 2010
So according the the premise of these scientifics, the sperm whales are 5 times smarter than humans cause their brains are 5X larger, of course
5 / 5 (2) Jan 21, 2010
I'm not sure what area of the brain is involved in reading skills, butr some of the respondent's seem to be challenged in that area! ;-)
'The volume of each brain structure was compared to that of the brain as a whole.'

So it was relative, not absolute, and the smaller average brain sizes of women would have made no difference, at least under the criteria used in this study.
2 / 5 (1) Jan 23, 2010
If one thinks in the terms of how evolution
performs, then the answer is quite obvious!

Testosterone and Estrogen each shape a fetuses
brain differently for their biological roles.

"All life is about reproductive advantage".

Do you think nature would favor a woman with risk-taking and strategy skills when caring for
a helpless newborn infant?

Or maybe an overwhelming emotion of heartfelt compassion for the poor mastodon a young male
hunter was about to impale?

I would not be surprised if there are physical
brain differences between men and women.

The bigger question is whether this video game
test could be proven to measure IQ.
not rated yet Jan 24, 2010
They should have tested 1st and 3rd person player vs player shooter games, and Real Time Strategy games.

By the way, in Real Time Strategy games, there is like one or two females in the top thousand players in the world, so it isn't surprising that males are probably better at video games.

Males are also better at visualization in drafting, as a general rule.

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