fMRI reveals video game addiction in men increases impulsivity

Using fMRI, researchers have found that brain regions associated with impulsivity were altered in men who are addicted to online gaming. The research, presented Nov. 28 at RSNA 2018 in Chicago, demonstrated a connection between behavioral problems associated with internet gaming disorder (IGD), or compulsive playing of online games, to those present in individuals with substance abuse issues.  

"Internet use is an integral part of the daily lives of many young adults, and a loss of control over Internet use could lead to various negative effects," senior author, Yawen Sun, MD, diagnostic radiologist at Ren Ji Hospital in Shanghai, China, said in a prepared statement.  

Recent studies have found there are more than 55 million online console gamers in the U.S. alone, making IGD “a major public health concern” among adolescents and young adults, according to the researchers.  

Involved in the study were 32 men and 23 women with IGD who underwent fMRI exams alongside the same number of healthy controls for each gender. Sun and colleagues specifically analyzed the relationships between brain activity and scores on the Barratt Impulsiveness Scale-11 behavioral inhibition test.

The researchers found that men with IGD had lower brain activity in the brain’s prefrontal lobe, inferring high impulsivity in this population. Women with IGD, on the other hand, did not show any of the same brain alterations—suggesting IGD may interact with gender-specific patterns of brain function in men versus women, according to the researchers.  

"Men have shown lower levels of impulse control in comparison with women, and their impulse control also increases more gradually," Sun noted. "Given the role of inhibitory control in the initiation of IGD, young men may tend to experiment with pathological Internet use to a greater degree than young women do." 

A dysfunctional prefrontal cortex and high impulsivity found in the men with IGD is also prevalent in those who suffer from substance abuse. However, Sun explained that additional research is needed to determine whether brain functional and structural changes found in IGD are gaming-induced or precursors for vulnerability.