Neural correlates of cognitive improvement in video game players: the role of white matter microstructure and brain activity (NCN 233923).
Project Leader: Natalia Kowalczyk, Msc
University of Social Sciences and Humanities


Research Project Objectives

The main goal of this project is to improve our understanding of the mechanics underlying neural changes that occur after intensive use of video games and how these changes are linked to enhancements observed at the behavioral level.  Current research clearly indicates that video games can benefit a wide range of cognitive functions, with a heavy emphasis on attentional processes, memory, and executive functions of working memory.  However, very little is known about the neural basis of these improvements.  Our project proposes to help answer a number of important questions regarding this issue, and aims to do so by integrating data obtained from functional (fMRI) and structural (DTI and VBM) magnetic resonance measurements with behavioral measures of attentional network functioning and executive functions of working memory.  This is a novel research approach that will constitute the first attempt (in the field) to integrate behavioral, functional, and neuroanatomical data in the context of complex statistical models.  Such data modelling is intended to provide analyses explaining various aspects of beneficial video game effects on cognitive functioning at a behavioral level, with use of variables obtained from resonance data.  

Research Project Methodology

Research is planned to be carried out using a differential scheme, comparing participants who play video games intensely (n = 30, a minimum of 6 hours per week in the last six months) to non-video game players (n = 30). Only healthy young men aged 20-30 years will be tested due to the relative scarcity of female video game players. Subjects will participate in three measurement sessions. The first measurement will be carried out on-line, with subjects filling out a screening questionnaire which measures video game usage and performing a test of working memory capacity (OSPAN). The results from this test will allow us to align the groups in terms of overall memory resources. The second measurement will be carried out in the laboratory, and will consist of a battery of behavioral tests measuring executive functions of working memory (6 tasks selected from the battery of tests used by Miyake) and the Attention Network Test (which measures attentional network functioning as proposed by Posner's theory). Additionally, each participant will be tested on verbal intelligence using APIS. During the third and final measurement session, participants will undergo brain imaging using magnetic resonance, during which structural (DTI and VBM) and functional (scanning while performing a test evaluating the ability to switch tasks, a measure of executive functions) measurements will be made.

Expected Impact of the Research Project on the Development of Science, Civilization and Society

To the best of our knowledge, no previous studies conducted in the area of ​​video games and cognitive functioning has utilized such a wide range of both neuroimaging and behavioral measures. Achieving this projects stated goals, namely a better understanding of the mechanisms underlying plastic changes responsible for improvement to different aspects of cognitive functioning, is highly relevant and important for basic research on cognitive training. The effects of the project also have significant potential for practical applications, such as the creation of more accurate neural indicators allowing for the optimization of actions aimed at improving cognitive functions and the potential use of video games as an intervention directed at healthy people of all ages and patients requiring neurorehabilitation.

Kowalczyk, N., Brzezicka, A., Kossut, M. (2014) . Neuroplastic Changes as a Result of Intensive Cognitive Training: A Comparison of Traditional and Innovative Approaches to Cognitive Training Using Video Games. Review article.  Neuropsychiatry and Neuropsychology .

Our testing of several healthy young video game players on executive functions while undergoing an fMRI scan indicates that activation occurs primarily in the frontal cortex and parietal regions (p < .05), FWE corrected at cluster level (see Figure). It is well documented in human imaging studies that these brain areas are not merely co-activated, but are functionally connected (fronto-parietal network) and are involved in working memory and switching processes.