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Originally reported on the Brainpower News Blog (no longer online), here is some of the latest brain research, covering the effects of video games on the brain and early-life infections.

Video Games Good for Brain?

Are video games good for your brain? The answer is not an easy one, and the question is perhaps too general in any case. It seems likely that whether a game is good for your brain depends on the type of game, and it is also likely that their are beneficial aspects as well as detrimental ones in many cases. A recent article on Science Daily had this to say:

Over the past decade, many studies and news media reports have suggested that action video games such as Medal of Honor or Unreal Tournament improve a variety of perceptual and cognitive abilities. But in a paper published this week in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, Walter Boot, an assistant professor in Florida State University's Department of Psychology, critically reevaluates those claims.

Together with FSU psychology doctoral student Daniel Blakely and University of Illinois collaborator Daniel Simons, Boot lays out what he believes is a persuasive argument that much of the work done over the past decade demonstrating the benefits of video game play is fundamentally flawed.

"Despite the hype, in reality, there is little solid evidence that games enhance cognition at all," he said.

Yes, the studies showed that gamers had better perceptual and cognitive abilities than those who did not play. The problem is that this simply shows correlation, and not causation. It could be that those with better cognitive abilities were drawn to video games, and so it was not the game that causes their superior abilities.

Eventually there will be other, better, studies that give us a bit more insight into whether this or that video game is good for something in terms of brainpower. I suspect that it will also be discovered--if the research is done--that moderation is important. Almost everything that is "good" for us, after all, is also "bad" for us if we have too much of it. So even if video games are good for the brain, endless hours playing them is probably not a good idea.

Early Infections Reduce Brainpower

Parents may want to pay attention to the latest research on immune system response and brain function. Staci Bilbo, an assistant professor in psychology & neuroscience at Duke University, has found that when rats have an infection at an early age they later have an aggressive immune response to subsequent infections. This, it turns out, harms learning and memory. As reported on Science Daily;

In a study published in the Oct. 26 Journal of Neuroscience, Bilbo's team identifies the source of the learning difficulties and traces it back to the immune system itself.

The researchers found that specialized immune system cells in the brain called microglia release a signaling molecule called Interleukin-1, or IL-1, in response to an infection. IL-1 is also crucial to normal learning and memory in the hippocampus region of the brain. But too much IL-1 can impair learning and memory in laboratory animals.

"These same molecules go up in response to any brain infection. I don't really understand why you would build a brain that way, except that there are clearly benefits in other aspects of immunity, outside the brain," Bilbo said.

Rats were infected early in life and later in life given an "infection" of dead bacteria. Their immune systems reacted strongly and this in turn affected learning and memory. It didn't matter whether the second infection was directly affecting the brain or not.

"These rats handle peripheral infection really well, but at a cost to the brain," Bilbo said.


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