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Videogame craving may rev up brain’s addiction circuits

Nov. 11, 2008
World Science staff

When on­line vid­eo game ad­dicts feel the urge to play, their brain act­ivity pat­terns look much like those of drug ad­dicts crav­ing their next dose, a study has found.

The find­ings sug­gest both types of ob­ses­sions “share the same neu­ro­bi­o­log­i­cal mech­a­nis­m,” the stu­dy’s au­thors wrote in the Nov. 7 on­line is­sue of the Jour­nal of Psy­chi­at­ric Re­search.

A frame from a World of Warcraft game.


The re­search comes amid grow­ing alarm in many coun­tries over the in­or­di­nate amounts of time some peo­ple are spend­ing on vi­deo games, of­ten to the det­ri­ment of health, ca­reer and fam­i­ly. 

A par­tic­u­lar fo­cus of con­cern has been the wild­ly pop­u­lar game World of War­craft. It seems to have a spe­cial draw on play­ers, who im­per­son­ate fan­ta­sy crea­tures and do bat­tle in an pic­tur­esque on­line world with other play­ers.

Chih-Hung Ko of Kao­hsiung Med­i­cal Uni­ver­s­ity Hos­pi­tal in Tai­wan and col­leagues com­pared 10 World of War­craft play­ers di­ag­nosed as “ad­dicts” to 10 non-ad­dicts as they un­der­went brain scans. 

Dur­ing the scan­ning, par­ti­ci­pants were shown pic­tures in­clud­ing vide­ogame scenes. These trig­gered crav­ings to play in ad­dicts, as the play­ers them­selves often ack­now­ledged.

In ad­dicts spe­cif­ic­ally, a con­stella­t­ion of about sev­en brain ar­eas lit up in scans while they viewed these pic­tures, ac­cord­ing to Ko and col­leagues. The same regions “have been re­ported to con­trib­ute to the crav­ing in sub­stance de­pend­ence” in past stud­ies, the re­search­ers not­ed. The ac­ti­vity of these re­gions was as­so­ci­at­ed with the urge to play as re­ported by the par­ti­ci­pants them­selves, they added.

The type of scan­ning used was func­tion­al mag­net­ic res­o­nance im­ag­ing, a widely used meth­od in which brain ac­ti­vity is eval­u­at­ed based on the amount of blood flow to dif­fer­ent ar­eas of the brain. 

The ac­tivated re­gions in the yearn­ing game ad­dicts, Ko and his group wrote, in­clud­ed brain ar­eas known as the right or­bitofront­al cor­tex, right nu­cle­us ac­cum­bens, bi­lat­er­al an­te­ri­or cin­gu­late and me­di­al front­al cor­tex, right dor­so­lat­er­al prefront­al cor­tex, and right cau­date nu­cle­us.

The re­sults show that “cue-induced” gam­ing urges draw on a net­work of brain path­ways “si­m­i­lar to that of the cue-induced crav­ing in sub­stance de­pend­ence,” Ko and col­leagues wrote.


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For online videogame addicts, the urge to play activates much of the same brain circuitry found to be stimulated in drug addicts craving their next dose, a study has found. The findings suggest both types of dependence “share the same neurobiological mechanism,” the study’s Taiwanese authors wrote in the Nov. 7 online issue of the Journal of Psychiatric Reearch. The research comes amid growing alarm in many countries over the inordinate amounts of time some people are spending on video games, often to the detriment of health, career and family. A particular focus of concern is the game World of Warcraft, whose players impersonate fantasy creatures and do battle in an online world that draws some players in to the point of obsession. Chih-Hung Ko of Kaohsiung Medical University Hospital in Taiwan and colleagues compared 10 World of Warcraft players diagnosed as “addicts” to 10 non-addicts as they underwent brain scans. During the scanning, participants were shown pictures including videogame scenes. These were intended to trigger a craving to play in addicts, which they often did, by the players’ own account. In addicts specifically, a constellation of about seven brain areas lit up while viewing these pictures, according to Ko and colleagues. The same “have been reported to contribute to the craving in substance dependence” in past studies, the researchers noted. The activity of these regions was associated with the urge to play as reported by the participants themselves, they added. The type of scanning used was functional magnetic resonance imaging, a popular method in which brain activity is evaluated based on the amount of blood flow to different areas of the brain. The activated regions in the yearning game addicts included brain areas known as the right orbitofrontal cortex, right nucleus accumbens, bilateral anterior cingulate and medial frontal cortex, right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and right caudate nucleus. “The results demonstrate that the neural substrate of cue-induced gaming urge/craving in online gaming addiction is similar to that of the cue-induced craving in substance dependence,” Ko and colleagues wrote.