A wave of deeply alarming headlines have emerged from the UK’s national press over the last 24 hours. From the Guardian: “Video game link to psychiatric disorders suggested by study”. From the Daily Mail: “Could video games increase your risk of Alzheimer’s?”. And from the Telegraph: “Call of Duty increases risk of Alzheimer’s disease”.
But the story gets less alarming and more tenuous the further back down the wire you go. The source? A Douglas Mental Health University Institute press release that mentions Alzheimer’s by name. And before that, some rather less dramatic research into the way gamers learn and pay attention.
In the press release, lead researcher Dr Gregory West says that his team “found that gamers rely on the caudate nucleus to a greater degree than non-gamers”. That’s the crux of the claim: the caudate nucleus has been associated with reduced volume of the hippocampus, and reduced volume of the hippocampus has been associated with increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
But the study, published in scientific journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, didn’t actually measure activity in the caudate nucleus. Instead, the researchers compared the way a group of gamers learned and paid attention to a group of non-gamers - and found a difference in behaviour. Via a technique called electroencephalography, they were able to show that a brain wave called the N2PC was different in the gaming group.
The type of learning the gamers displayed has been linked with increased use of the caudate nucleus in past studies. But as the Guardian’s own elegant takedown points out, that still leaves us three degrees of separation from the Alzheimer’s link shouted from the headlines.
If there’s a causal link between playing games and psychiatric disorders, goodness knows we’d be the first to want to know about it - that’s us and our families in the firing line. But this? This isn’t it.