More Than Just a Pastime: How Video Games Change Your Brain

Editor’s Note: This summer we have two communications interns working with us to write stories about research at the hospital and their experiences being part of the hospital community. This is a post by our intern Shika Lakshman, a student at Emerson College .


Video games. We all play them, whether it’s Candy Crush on the way to work, or hours-long sessions of Call of Duty.

So when I recently read an article about a new research study detailing the positive and negative effects of playing video games, I decided to follow up. According to the lead author of the study, Marc Palaus, “It’s likely that video games have both positive (on attention, visual and motor skills) and negative aspects (risk of addiction), and it is essential we embrace this complexity”.

Paulus and a team of researchers from Catalonia University and Massachusetts General Hospital recently conducted an assessment of research studies looking at how brains change as a result of playing video games.

What did they find? Video games can change how you pay attention, improving sustained and selective attentions. It also means that the areas in the brain responsible for attention need less stimuli to activate. Additionally, video games can physically  change the structure of your brain, making the parts of your brain responsible for visuospatial skills bigger and more efficient.

So, video games make it easier for gamers to focus on specific stimuli (like games) for longer periods of time, while also allowing for better recognition of shapes, from faces to cars to trees. That’s the good part.

However, as you’ve probably heard, video games can also be addictive. It’s not just something your mom said to get you to do your homework, it’s called “internet gaming disorder”. It mostly affects men, ages 12-20, and primarily in Asia.

Addictive disorders can also cause structural changes to the brain, and gaming addictions are no different. The neural rewards system in your brain can be affected by “cravings” stemming from video games, and researchers say they are the same changes that other addictions cause.


What does the research tell us? From what I can gather, most video game studies are slanted towards reinforcing the idea that “video games are bad, they cause violence, antisocial behavior, etc.”

I wanted to get a more balanced opinion. So, I did what anyone my age would do: I posted on Facebook, and hoped for responses. I made a survey, asking people about their opinions on video games and some of the study results, and most responded positively.

A few respondents said video games helped them learn English. Many said it allowed them to make friends, and others said it helped with anxiety, stress and their mental wellbeing. Overall, people weren’t entirely shocked to learn that video games can physically change your brain, although they did think the positive effects of outweigh the negative ones. In fact, one respondent actually credited video games with healing a brain injury, “I have a brain injury that affects my coordination. Playing video games has helped me to regain back some of the hand-eye coordination that I feel like I lost.”

One respondent summed it up nicely. “As with anything, moderation is key. Sure, too much time in games stunts our social growth and tricks our brains into thinking we’ve accomplished things. But a moderate amount of time enjoying a favorite game and socializing with friends isn’t a negative thing”.

Here is the poll I used, thought it might be useful so people can see exactly what I asked:

What is your name? *

How old are you? *

What age did you start playing video games? *

How would you characterize your video game use? *

1 casual (mostly on your commute, only on your phone, etc.)




5 professional (you play/have played in competitions and/or earn money for playing)

Have you noticed any changes since you started playing video games, such as a change in attention span? *

How many hours a week do you spend playing video games? *





If you selected 21+ above, please estimate the number of hours each week.

Would you be surprised if video games were physically changing your brain? *



Do you think there are more positive or negative effects of video games? *



They balance out

Any final thoughts on the effects of video games?

The Science Behind my Compulsion to Shop – and How to Become a Smarter Spender

Editor’s Note: This summer we have two communications interns working with us to write stories about research at the hospital and their experiences being part of the hospital community. This is a post by our intern Catherine Iannucci, a student at Emerson College .

Cat-shoppingphoto (002)

My name is Catherine, and I am a compulsive buyer.

As a college student living in Boston, I have a limited budget. Realistically, I know I need money for groceries yet I still insist on buying that weird face spray stuff that’s supposed to make my makeup look better.

But now thanks to a recent article in the Boston Globe Magazine on why humans are driven to over consume,  at least I know why.  And may I just say, “thank goodness,” because I need something to tell my mother when she asks why I have no savings.

The article, “Why is it so hard to stop buying more stuff?” features the insights of Ann-Christine Duhaime, MD, a neurosurgeon at the Mass General Hospital for Children who is investigating the link between our biological makeup and our habits of overconsumption.

Her research has shown that our brains encourage repetitive spending to get a chemical reaction that produces a feeling similar to a “short-term high”. This biological reaction was originally used to encourage us to gather the resources we needed to survive, but now it’s making us hoard a bunch of stuff we don’t need.

According to Dr. Duhaime, “No behavior happens without [the brain’s] complex and amazingly designed reward system weighing in.”

I can see this happening in my shopping decision, as well as those of my friends. My best friend, whose money goes out as fast as it comes in, normally acknowledges out loud, “I really have to start saving money!” even as she hands cash over to a Forever 21 employee who has heard that a million times before and is holding back an eye roll. Even my friend who is a budget master—and probably reads three finance books a month—has difficulty sticking to his pre-planned budget due to spur-of-the-moment purchase decisions.

When we can’t resist this intrinsic motivation to buy more stuff, we create more waste. When we finally run out of room and decide to purge some of the older, but probably still usable, things cluttering up our lives, we are adding to the massive amount of waste that already exists.

Dr. Duhaime proposes a solution that will help to redirect our buying-obsessed brains and help the environment at the same time. Instead of buying new makeup spray or Forever 21 clothes to get that high, we need to retrain our brains to get that same “high” from renovating and repurposing existing possessions to fit current needs. Maybe reupholster an old couch instead of wasting money on a new one, reuse old wood pallets to make a cute DIY bookshelf, or find some other fun project that will trigger the same “reward” system in your brain with a less wasteful outcome.

CatFor me the best course of action is just to go cold turkey on the impulse buys and spend my money only on food and bars of soap.

Of course I’m kidding. We all know that’s wildly unrealistic. But, I am going to start reusing that Dunkin Donuts hot cup that I insist on getting as a koozy for my iced coffee. Plus, I’m pretty sure that makeup spray is a complete hoax anyway, so that will have to go too.

Team Effort Finds First Definitive Answers to Complex Genetic Basis of Tourette Syndrome

A large scale analysis of genetic information from individuals with Tourette syndrome led by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and UCLA has identified alterations in two genes that significantly increase the risk of developing the disorder.

27915588 - dna background

A team effort between genetic researchers, clinicians, a patient advocacy group and volunteer study participants has revealed new genetic insights into Tourette syndrome—a neuropsychiatric disorder that results in involuntary physical and verbal tics.

The study helps to confirm the theory that Tourette syndrome results from a complex series of genetic changes rather than a single mutated gene. It may also provide comfort for individuals with the disorder, who are often stigmatized for their uncontrollable movements and outbursts.

Jeremiah Scharf quoto

Continue reading “Team Effort Finds First Definitive Answers to Complex Genetic Basis of Tourette Syndrome”

Research Awards and Honors: July 2017

Massachusetts General Hospital’s talented and dedicated researchers are working to push the boundaries of science and medicine every day. In this series we highlight a few individuals who have recently received awards or honors for their achievements:

brownDennis Brown, PhD, Director of the MGH Program in Membrane Biology, assumed the presidency of the American Physiological Society (APS) in April, immediately following the APS annual meeting at Experimental Biology 2017. As one of his presidential goals, Brown underscored the need to reach out to life scientists who may not consider themselves physiologists and welcome them under the APS umbrella.

“My lab focuses on how the kidney responds to signals in the body to maintain water and acid/base balance. Specialized cells detect when there is too much or too little water in the body, and they adjust the amount of urine we produce to keep our fluid level constant. Sometimes this goes wrong, and we end up with too much (hypertension) or too little fluid (dehydration). Similarly, the kidney helps keep blood pH within a normal viable range. When this fails, the blood becomes too acidic, resulting in problems ranging from kidney stones to defective bone formation, and even death. We are using drug discovery approaches to understand and find treatments for these conditions. This work depends on continuing support from federal agencies. Part of my mission as President of the APS is to lobby for increased NIH funding. Our future depends on attracting the best and brightest minds into research labs, and I am looking forward to being a part of this process.”



Kim Francis, PhD, PHCNS-BC, neonatal clinical nurse specialist, has received the inaugural Jeanette Ives Erickson Nursing Research Award, a new honor for nurse researchers sponsored by the MGH Research Institute. The award will be presented annually to a mid-career, doctorally prepared nurse researcher with a passion for scientific inquiry. (Pictured from left, Maurizio Fava, MD, director of the Division of Clinical Research; Susan A. Slaugenhaupt, PhD, scientific director of the Research Institute; Francis; and Jeanette Ives Erickson, RN, DNP, NEA-BC, FAAN, former chief nurse and senior vice president of Patient Care Services)

“I was thrilled to learn I received the inaugural Jeanette Ives Erickson Nursing Research Award. What an honor to be the first recipient. I am extremely grateful to work in an institution that supports nursing research. The support received from this award will go towards learning more about how to recognize pain behaviors for preterm infants.

Recognizing pain for preterm infants remains an area where more information is needed. There are many reasons that make it difficult to decide if a preterm infant is in pain. These reasons include: being born too early, a lack of pain assessment tools and understanding of the pain response. Currently, I am investigating the use of Infrared thermography with preterm infants to find out if this method can be used as a new, low cost, noninvasive approach that can identify pain from skin temperature changes for this at risk population.”


khera.jpgAmit V. Khera, MD, of MGH Cardiology and the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, has been named the inaugural recipient of the Clinical Science Research award by The National Lipid Association. Khera’s winning proposal, “Determinants of LDL Cholesterol and Coronary Artery Disease Among Individuals with a Familial Hypercholesterolemia (FH) Mutation,” builds on his previous work noting substantial variability among carriers of FH mutations in both LDL cholesterol and heart attack risk. He will specifically aim to characterize the genetic and non-genetic determinants of observed LDL cholesterol levels and assess the genetic, lifestyle and biomarker risk factors for myocardial infarction among those with a FH mutation. The work will inform ongoing efforts to screen the population for such mutations and clinical counseling for patients who inherit such a mutation.

“My work seeks to build an evidence base for ‘genomic medicine’ – the use of human genetics to understand differences in risk for cardiovascular disease, risk factors, and response to medicines.

I am extremely honored to receive this inaugural award from the National Lipid Association, a group that has led the field in both research and clinical management for targeting cholesterol to improve human health. This grant will provide critical support at an early phase in my career.”


mullenAlan Mullen, MD, PhD, of the Gastrointestinal Unit, has been selected as Pew scholar in the biomedical sciences. He is one of 22 exceptional early-career researchers to be selected by The Pew Charitable Trust to pursue foundational research. Mullen’s lab will investigate the role that regulatory RNAs play in chronic liver failure. Using state-of-the-art techniques in genetics, genomics and physiology, he will determine which lncRNAs regulate the production of scar tissue in humans and mice, and whether inhibiting their action can prevent fibrosis – work that could lead to novel treatment to prevent liver failure.

“Most of the genes that are studied in any cell type encode RNAs that provide blueprints for production of proteins. However, recent discoveries have identified many RNAs that do not encode proteins, and we are just beginning to understand how these noncoding RNAs work. I am a clinician who takes care of patients with liver disease, and we are working to understand how a type of noncoding RNA called long noncoding RNA regulates the development of liver fibrosis, which leads to cirrhosis and liver failure. We have identified specific long noncoding RNAs that are expressed in the main cell type responsible for liver fibrosis.

I am very excited to have been named a Pew Scholar. The support from the Pew Charitable Trust will allow us to understand how these noncoding RNAs function and how we can modulate their expression to develop new treatments for liver fibrosis.”


schwabJoseph H. Schwab, MD, Orthopaedic spine surgeon and Orthopaedic Oncology surgeon, has received the CORR ORS Richard A. Brand Award for Outstanding Research from the Association of Bone and Joint Surgeons and the Orthopaedic Research Society for his paper “Immune Surveillance Plays a Role in Locally Aggressive Giant Cell Lesions of Bone.” The annual award is given to recognize the quality and scientific merit of an original paper focusing on a topic of clinical relevance.

“The work was a collaborative effort between myself and Mass General’s Dr. Soldano Ferrone from the Monoclonal Antibody and Immunotherapy Laboratory and Dr. Leonard Kaban and Dr. Zachary Peacock from the department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery. Our work focused on the role of immune escape mechanisms in the pathophysiology of giant cell lesions of bone. The data presented in this paper provides important insights into the role of the immune system in giant cell lesions and will serve to guide future treatment strategies.

I was honored to receive this award. My collaborators and I are very excited about the future of immunotherapy for musculoskeletal cancer and it has been great to be recognized for our efforts.”

Potentially Dangerous Pregnancy Complication Leads to Significant Health and Cost Burdens for Mothers and Their Babies

What should be a joyous and exciting time for soon-to-be parents can sometimes take a turn for the worse if the mother develops a blood-pressure related condition called preeclampsia. Globally, preeclampsia and other related disorders of pregnancy are a leading cause of maternal and infant illness and death.

Because little is known about the extent of the health and cost burden of preeclampsia in the United States, a team of researchers including senior investigator Anupam B. Jena, MD, PhD, a physician in the Department of Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, sought to quantify preeclampsia’s impact.

The study, published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, found that preeclampsia results in billions of additional healthcare costs and can increase the short- and long-term health risks for mother and baby, underscoring the need to do more to understand the disorder and prevent it from occurring.

Anupam Jena quoto

Here are five things to know:

    1. 1. Preeclampsia is a condition that only occurs during pregnancy and postpartum and can lead to serious, even fatal, complications for both the mother and the unborn baby. It is characterized by high blood pressure and usually begins after 20 weeks of pregnancy (in the late 2nd or 3rd trimesters) and up to six weeks after delivery. Symptoms include protein in the urine, swelling, sudden weight gain, and headaches; however, some women with rapidly advancing disease report few symptoms. Preeclampsia can’t be reversed and currently, the only “cure” for preeclampsia is delivery of the baby.
    1. 2. Driven in part by older maternal age and greater obesity, rates of preeclampsia are rising rapidly. Since 1980, cases have increased steadily from 2.4% to about 5% today. “From an epidemiologic perspective, preeclampsia is growing at a rate more rapid than diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, and chronic kidney disease — diseases for which substantial research and treatment funding have been allocated,” says Jena. Although preeclampsia has affected pregnant women for many years, the true cause remains unknown.
    1. 3. Women affected by preeclampsia are at an increased long-term risk for cardiovascular diseases, such as heart attacks and hypertension, and liver or kidney failure in the years and decades after delivery. When preeclampsia causes the blood vessels to constrict and reduce blood flow to vital organs including the uterus, it can also cause short- and long-term health complications for the baby including low birth weight, and cerebral palsy, epilepsy, blindness and deafness later in life. In addition, the baby may suffer the effects of prematurity if delivered early.
    1. 4. Taking into account the level of care needed to treat mothers and babies affected by the condition, Jena and the research team calculated that the cost of preeclampsia within the first 12 months after birth is $2.18 billion in the United States ($1.03 billion for mothers and $1.15 billion for infants). Considering the short- and long-term health risks associated with preeclampsia for both the mother and the baby, this number is only a mere minimum estimate of the total economic and health burden imposed by the condition.
    1. 5. “This new research underscores the urgent need to continue research into its causes and to implement strategies that may help women manage this condition,” commented William Callaghan, MD, chief of Maternal and Infant Health Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Check out this video to learn more about Dr. Jena’s research:

Friday Read: How to Tell Nutrition Research Fact From Fiction in the News

If you’re confused whether coconut oil is good or bad for you or whether alcohol will lengthen or shorten your life, you’re not alone. With so many nutrition studies receiving coverage in the news, it’s often difficult to discern truth from hyperbole.

A great article published today in the Washington Post discusses how we shouldn’t make generalizations based on the results from many nutrition science studies. The author explained it nicely when she said:

“The coffee studies in the news last week were what scientists know as observational studies. In these studies, researchers followed coffee drinkers and non-coffee drinkers and monitored when and how they died. The problem is, when you go about searching for differences between any two groups, you’re going to find them. ‘That doesn’t prove that coffee is providing the benefit,’ said David Ludwig, professor of nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health. For example, people who drink coffee regularly might have higher incomes, drink fewer sugary beverages, or lead more active lifestyles. Observational studies like these are useful for identifying interesting trends, but they do not demonstrate cause and effect.”

Nutrition is a particularly difficult topic for the media to cover. One nutrition study on its own likely won’t provide newsworthy, headline-grabbing content. “Truth can only emerge from many different studies with many different methods,” said Ludwig.

So how can you determine whether or not to believe a news story? Among other suggestions, the author warns to be wary of claims that cutting any given food from our diets will cure us. They sound too good to be true because they are.

To learn how to become a better interpreter of nutrition science in the news, read the full article from the Washington Post here.