By Margarita Nahapetyan
Scientists say that that the size of just three little structures in our brain can predict how well we can do when playing a video game. It turns out, the bigger are the structures, the faster we can catch on the game.
According to the experts, their study demonstrates that the striatum - a region deep within the cerebral cortex - has a big effect on how much we can refine our motor skills and learn new things. "We are really at the tip of the iceberg in understanding how all this gets put together," said Kirk Erickson, a professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh and the principal author of the new research.
Thirty-nine young volunteers, with the ages between 18 and 28 years, were recruited at the University of Illinois to take part in the experiment. Ten of the participants were male, and twenty-nine of them were female. Over the preceding two years none of the subjects had played video games for more than 3 hours per week. The experts used high-resolution MRI scans in order to measure various brain regions of each person.
During the experiment, all the participants were trained to play Space Fortress (a game designed at the University of Illinois for research purposes) for 20 hours a week. Space Fortress is basically an Asteroids-type arcade game, in which a player has to knock down and destroy an enemy fortress while dodging space mines. What is the most important, the game has lots of extra twists that require close attention. For the study purposes, half of the participants were asked to focus exclusively on their score, and the other half needed to improve their skills in different areas at different times.
The results revealed that the subjects who had more volume in the brain area called the nucleus accumbens did best in the early stages of training. And those with a larger caudate nucleus and putamen (different areas of the striatum), did significantly better on the variable priority training. The investigators explain that this all demonstrates that knowing the relative sizes of various brain structures can give indications of learning ability.
Professor Erickson said that their new study could have an impact on how brain-training services are offered, depending on how much value individuals place on measuring brain volume. Professor also said that the findings could suggest regions to focus on when treating mental disabilities - or regions to watch when looking for the effects of different training strategies. What is not known yet is the extent to which these brain regions can actually change as the result of more experience or training, Erickson said. It is quite possible that the more activity people engage in, the more likely they are to change the volume of these structures.
The new findings appear in the latest issue of the journal Cerebral Cortex.