Gaming linked to dementia

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Children’s minds can be “literally blown” by playing video games, warned a controversial Oxford scientist last Thursday.

Professor of Pharmacology Baroness Susan Greenfield said that spending too much time online gaming and browsing social network sites such as Facebook can lead to the development of neurological problems in young people.

“Screen technologies cause high arousal, which in turn activates the brain system’s underlying addiction and reward, resulting in the attraction of yet more screen-based activity,” she told pupils at the opening of the new science department of Sherborne Girls’ School in Dorset.

Baroness Greenfield, who is a Fellow of Lincoln College, added that “the brain’s neuronal connections can be temporarily disabled by activities with a strong sensory content – ‘blowing the mind’ – or they can be inactivated permanently by degeneration, ie, ‘dementia’. In both cases the mind then recapitulates early childhood development.”

She also said that the average British ten-year-old spends almost 2,000 hours looking at a computer screen over a year, and that in addition to ‘dementia’ other symptoms of gaming addictions include shortened attention spans and reckless behaviour.

The validity of her statement has been questioned by some members of the scientific community. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Psychology and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University said he had no knowledge of any scientific evidence linking online gaming to dementia.

“If anything the fact computer games are arousing can aid education by keeping children engaged,” he said.

However, Griffiths did not dispute all the baroness’s arguments, adding,“There is some evidence that when played to excess, video game playing can in some extreme cases be addictive, especially online video game playing where the game never pauses or ends, and has the potential to be a 24/7 activity.”

Dr Dean Burnett, a Cardiff University neuroscientist, disagreed with Greenfield’s view that gaming is harmful because it ‘blows the mind’, saying, “The constant deactivating of parts of the brain is vital to our functioning as normal cognitive beings. You could argue that Baroness Greenfield is referring to specific, damaging connections, but I can only be as precise in my comments as she is being in hers. Areas of the brain being shut down or deactivated is as normal a part of development as losing your milk teeth.”

This is not the first time that statements made by Baroness Greenfield have raised controversy. Earlier this year she was subject to harsh criticism over her claim that there could be a link between the rise in cases of autism and increased internet use.

Dr Burnett called Baroness Greenfield’s reasons for disliking video games “noble,” but contended that “this does not justify the use of junk science, or the public airing of overblown conclusions based on little or no evidence. With every unsubstantiated claim, Baroness Greenfield distances herself further from the scientific community that once had such respect for her.”

Upon finding out about the link drawn by Baroness Greenfield between online gaming and brain degeneration, one second-year biologist commented, “I definitely correlate time spent playing video games with lower essay marks. That may be a matter of time wasted though.”

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