Acute and long-lasting cortical thickness changes following intensive first-person action videogame practice

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Recent evidence shows how an extensive gaming experience might positively impact cognitive and perceptual functioning, leading to brain structural changes observed in cross-sectional studies. Importantly, changes seem to be game-specific, reflecting gameplay styles and therefore opening to the possibility of tailoring videogames according to rehabilitation and enhancement purposes. However, whether if such brain effects can be induced even with limited gaming experience, and whether if they can outlast the gaming period, is still unknown. Here we quantified both cognitive and grey matter thickness changes following 15 daily gaming sessions based on a modified version of a 3D first-person shooter (FPS) played in laboratory settings. Twenty-nine healthy participants were randomly assigned to a control or a gaming group and underwent a cognitive assessment, an in-game performance evaluation and structural magnetic resonance imaging before (T0), immediately after (T1) and three months after the end of the experiment (T2). At T1, a significant increase in thickness of the bilateral parahippocampal cortex (PHC), somatosensory cortex (S1), superior parietal lobule (SPL) and right insula were observed. Changes in S1 matched the hand representation bilaterally, while PHC changes corresponded to the parahippocampal place area (PPA). Surprisingly, changes in thickness were still present at T2 for S1, PHC, SPL and right insula as compared to T0. Finally, surface-based regression identified the lingual gyrus as the best predictor of changes in game performance at T1. Results stress the specific impact of core game elements, such as spatial navigation and visuomotor coordination on structural brain properties, with effects outlasting even a short intensive gaming period.

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