Press, University Say Study Shows Link Between Gaming And Alzheimer's; Spoiler: No It Doesn't

from the forget-it dept

If I’ve learned any single thing covering technology news it’s that you can blame absolutely anything on video games. Mass violence? Games. Failure at professional sports? Pssh, games, yo. Love life not as spicy as you might like? Those games, those games. But a study that supposedly claims a link between video games and Alzheimer’s Disease? Come on.

“Call of Duty increases risk of Alzheimer’s disease”, said the Telegraph. “Video game link to psychiatric disorders suggested by study”, reported the Guardian. The Daily Mail posed the problem as a question, “Could video games increase your risk of Alzheimer’s?”, reminding us that whenever a news headline asks a question, the answer is no.

We know that when science news is hyped, most of the hype is already present in the press releases issued by universities. This case is no exception – the press release was issued by the Douglas Mental Health University Institute, and unsurprisingly it focuses almost entirely on the tenuous link to Alzheimer’s disease.

Tenuous is being exceptionally kind in this case. The study in question, produced in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, barely focused on any link between gaming and the disease, in fact. Instead, the team of Canadian researchers were simply studying the difference in brain-wave activity with groups of gamers and non-gamers. They noticed specifically a significant difference in the activity of one type of brain-wave with gamers, N2PC, which can have an effect on attention spans. So, how did we get from that to a link to Alzheimer’s? Were there clinical tests done? Was the team of researchers even in any way focused on the most famous form of dementia?

No. Instead, the article describes the methodology for reaching the conclusion of a link thusly:

1. The type of learning shown by the gamers has been associated in previous studies with increased use of a brain region called the caudate nucleus

2. Increased use of the caudate nucleus can be associated with reduced volume of the hippocampus

3. Reduced volume of the hippocampus can be associated with increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease

4. Therefore (take a deep breath) video gaming could increase risk of Alzheimer’s disease

That’s three, three associations of mere correlation at best, with not even a shred of evidence for causality. And from that we get not only press reports of a link, which I can understand because the major media groups in Western culture have proven to be more interested in sensationalism than stuff that actually exists, but university institutions pushing out press releases to feed the hounds? That’s not only wrong, it’s borderline character-assassination on the wider gaming industry. Sadly, even some on the research team have gotten in on the act, likely in the hopes of generating press coverage of the study.

The press release also includes a statement from the lead researcher that is a clear exaggeration. Dr Gregory West is quoted as saying “we also found that gamers rely on the caudate nucleus to a greater degree than non-gamers”. Actually they didn’t find this at all, because their study didn’t measure activity in the caudate nucleus. Instead it measured a type of behaviour that previous studies have associated with activity in the caudate nucleus. There is a world of difference between these two, and readers would do well to take these latest claims with a generous helping of salt.

No, man! Salt intake is associated with water retention, which is associated with bloating, and weight-gain can be a factor in spousal infedelity, therefore salt leads to my wife cheating on me if I take these grains you prescribe!

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Comments on “Press, University Say Study Shows Link Between Gaming And Alzheimer's; Spoiler: No It Doesn't”

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Ninja (profile) says:

The saddest part isn’t that some people are spreading wacky, devoid of facts claims. The sad part is that a whole freaking lot of people swallow it whole just because it’s in line with what they want to believe. No use trying to reason with these kinds so the best we can do is to point out these pseudo-science are wrong. The issue is when such nonsense gets support from the lawmakers…

Gracey (profile) says:

huh. Game play = Alzheimer’s?

NOT. My mom had Alzheimer’s, and she never played any type of video game in her entire life. None … ever. They never owned a computer at all.

That “tenuous link” has to be the MOST tenuous link I’ve ever seen.

Both of my grandmother’s also had it. No video games.

One of my aunts had it. No video games.

And her daughter had it. Also no video games.

My cousin’s wife had it. No video games.

Dark Helmet (profile) says:

Re: Re:

As Mike said, the study didn’t suggest that the ONLY cause of Alzheimer’s is gaming, but that it could be a cause, or contributor, which is still bullshit.

That said, I’m enormously surprised that all the evidence isn’t in the OTHER direction. As I too have a long family history riddled with Old-Timers Disease, as we call it in fearful humor, I’ve been keeping up on the advances that have been made in understanding how to hold off the symptoms or keep the disease at bay for as long as possible. Everything I read indicates that doing things like completing crossword puzzles and Sudoku may help. Why should gaming, especially gaming that includes puzzle-solving, be any different?

That said, I’m FAR more interested in what scientists are learning from ex-athletes diagnosed with CTE, given its close symptomatic proximity to Alzheimer’s and the possible link to similar debilitating proteins that affect brain function. I may be being optimistic, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we had some kind of way to essentially eliminate early-onset Alzheimer’s within my lifetime….

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

There’s a big genetic component there in your case it seems. In my family nobody has ever had Alzheimer up to my great grandparents. I’ve read that you can have the disease even if you aren’t predisposed genetically speaking depending on some circumstances and it’s best if you keep an active brain at all times (ie: by reading, exercising, engaging in social interactions etc).

What amuses me in this article is that even when you don’t have puzzle-solving in games there are a lot of things you have to account for. Taking Call of Duty as an example along with puzzles you have to keep focused to spend ammo wisely and even orchestrate ambushes to get the upper hand against some enemies/players that outmatch you in some way. I’ve been playing this rpg lately that had me thinking about combinations of equipment, gems and skills to better deal with determined situations (tip: not always maximizing damage will be the winning strategy)… I mean, how can this not be heavy brain activity?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I’m with Dark Helmet on this one. Indeed, I thought I had read that there were studies indicating that playing video games reduced or delayed the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, which makes sense since games that involve lots of CPU (brain) processing are exercises for your brain.

I wonder if these people figured this stuff out because they’ve got this book? (Potentially obscure reference to the Bill Nye-Ken Ham debate, where Ham’s comeback to scientific facts and evidence was holding a bible.)

Anonymous Coward says:

What this study is actually about...

Basically, the tenet of the paper is this, people who play video games tend to use different parts of their brain more often. They also apparently, according to this study, tend to navigate a maze differently than those who do not play video games.

There is a serious bias however, their way of assessing how people solve a maze. They used a virtual reality simulation, which is problematic. People are not rats… you cannot assume that a human will think of a virtual reality simulation the same as the real world. this alone makes this study very questionable indeed. The authors themselves also acknowledge a different selection bias, that those who play video games may have altered neural connections to begin with, which is why they enjoy them.

While it likely is a foregone conclusion that gamers really do think a little differently, and do use navigation techniques they learn in video games in real life, its a real stretch to say that so doing puts them at risk of disease. The real basis for many neurological and psychiatric disorders remains very much a mystery to modern medical science. While amyloid beta plays a role in Alzheimer’s, it is but part of the story. Is it possible that decreased hippocampus size may play a role too… yes… and is it therefore possible that video games could play a role… sure it is.

However, correlation does not imply causation. That is a basic part of scientific research. There needs to be a real definite link, not just a correlation… which this article does not provide.

The main point of the article appears to be that video game playing alters neural circuitry, and it makes a convincing and likely correct argument to that end. However it is extremely poor form on the authors part to offer or even imply the sensational claim that video games can cause Alzheimer’s, without actual proof. As the author of several scientific publications of my own, any claim such as this should either not be said, or it should be made abundantly clear, and in simple language, that it is just a correlation.

Furthermore, the press have also sensationalized this article to a large degree. They should know better, and should be able to read themselves, or at least have an expert be able to tell them that this study does not actually link gaming to Alzheimer’s. Instead they just go looking for another headline without thinking… what do they care, as long as people buy their articles and look at their ads, they make money. But they should care, accurate, realistic reporting is extremely valuable, and extremely rare… and is something we need more of, and ultimately will be what wins the day, at least I hope.

Anyway, just my 2 cents worth

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: What this study is actually about...

Furthermore, the press have also sensationalized this article to a large degree. They should know better, and should be able to read themselves, or at least have an expert be able to tell them that this study does not actually link gaming to Alzheimer’s. Instead they just go looking for another headline without thinking…

So reading stuff from said “press” leads to doing things without thinking. I never knew reading The Guardian led to Alzheimer 😐

On a side note, nice comment.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: What this study is actually about...

Well I don’t know if it leads to it, haha. However, reading the ridiculous stories that the mainstream press runs these days certainly makes me feel like I have Alzheimer’s, or maybe like I am having paranoid delusions.

Worst part is, as someone mentioned before… is that people actually accept this stuff as true. People are so stupid these days.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: What this study is actually about...

At least the Guardian had the decency to publish the debunking article after their initial publication of the sensationalized nonsense. Gotta say, though, that I’m rather disappointed in the lack of even a single joke about trusting the “Proceedings of Ark Ship B”.

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