Findings appeared in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.
"We then followed that up with two studies to establish causality, and we found that it was indeed the gaming that led to changes in the brain".
Professor Greg West, of the University of Montreal, said: "Video games have been shown to benefit certain cognitive systems in the brain".
"While cognitive training treatments that rely on action video games may promote better visual attention skills, the current results show that they may be associated with a reduction in hippocampal grey matter", West explains.
To figure that out, West's team recruited 51 men and 46 women and randomly divided them into two groups: one that played action titles like "Call of Duty", "Kill Zone", and "Borderlands 2" and a second group that played 3D platform games from the "Super Mario" series. Rather, the scientists learned that those video games where no spatial memory strategy is required are responsible for the effect.
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"That's why we chose to do a full neuro-imaging study, scanning the brains of habitual players of action video games and comparing them to non-players, and what we saw was less grey matter in the hippocampus of habitual players".
"We saw less grey matter in the hippocampus of habitual players". Instead of simply following a path from pure memory, they look out for cues that remind them where to go next. Participants were questioned about the strategies they employ to navigate.
The researchers first investigated differences in the hippocampal grey matter of 33 people who either habitually play action video games or never do so.
Shaped like a seahorse, hence its name, the hippocampus is the part of the brain that helps people to orient themselves (so-called spatial memory) and to remember past experience (episodic memory). The paper outlines that the major culprits tend to be games "designed without in-game Global Positioning System, or [without] wayfinding routes overlaid on the game's display for the player to follow".
Before the experiment, each participant was interviewed about the strategies they use to navigate in order to learn whether or not they were spatial learners or response learners.
Response learners ignored the landmarks and focused on memorizing the sequence of a series of right and left turns from the starting position.
Action games with on-screen maps to aid navigation did most harm.