WEDNESDAY, Jan. 20, 2010 (HealthDay News) -- How adeptly you play a video game may indicate how big some parts of your brain are, the authors of a new study report.
Researchers found that certain regions of the brain are larger in young people who do a better job of playing a specially designed video game.
In other words, all those people who devote their days to their Wiis and XBoxes may be packing some cerebral heat, at least when it comes to the sheer size of what's inside their skulls.
The findings "can help us understand how individual differences contribute to cognitive differences and how we can enhance brain function by increasing the volume of these regions," said study co-author Arthur F. Kramer, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Scientists have long wondered if big brains translate into extra intelligence, but that's not always true in the animal kingdom. Small birds, for example, have huge brains for their physical size, but they aren't the sharpest critters around.
In the new study, researchers turned to a decades-old video game called Space Fortress. Scientists developed the game, akin to a flight simulator and the classic Space Invaders, to study learning. According to Kramer, it takes about 20 hours for undergraduate students to learn how to become good at the game.
Using MRIs, the study authors measured the size of specific brain regions of 42 participants (aged 18 to 28) before they began playing the video game.
Then the researchers tried to find links between the sizes of different brain regions and how well people played the game. "We wanted to know if individual differences are important in how well people can learn a complex new skill over a limited period of time," Kramer said. "We decided to look into these areas because we've learned an awful lot about the neural circuits that contribute to learning new skills."
The findings are scheduled to be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Cerebral Cortex.
The researchers found that certain regions of the brain, the striatum in particular, were indeed bigger in the most successful players. "Bigger is better in this case, at least among healthy tissue," Kramer said.
The findings seem to confirm that parts of the striatum, which is nestled deep inside the cerebral cortex, determine a person's ability to learn both motor skills and new concepts, and also to adapt to changing situations, the researchers wrote.
The size of another region, the hippocampus, wasn't larger in those people, suggesting that the researchers are onto something regarding the importance of the other regions when it comes to learning skills.
Joe Verghese, director of the Division of Cognitive & Motor Aging at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, said the study is preliminary, but it's "an important step."
Verghese said it would have been interesting to know if the video game training itself changed the sizes of those brain regions or boosted their activity.
As for the future, researchers are trying to figure out how to help people boost their brain power by boosting the size of regions of the brain, Kramer said.
For now, another approach works well: Exercise. It helps make the brain larger, he said, because "as you become more physically fit, the brain changes."
Learning new skills also seems to have the same effect, he noted.
For more on the brain, check Harvard University's Whole Brain Atlas.