Your Brain's Got Game

Space war. This game may not look like much, but it's giving researchers insight into the human mind.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Always stunk at video games? Perhaps you've been cursed with a small striatum, a region of the brain involved in learning and memory. Researchers have found that college students with relatively large striatums learned how to play a challenging video game faster than their small-striatum peers. Large-striatum individuals were also better at shifting priorities from, say, shooting a target to outrunning an enemy--abilities that could translate to the real world.

The game isn't exactly Halo or Assassin's Creed. Instead, Space Fortress looks a lot like the very first arcade games, with geometric shapes subbing for spaceships and buildings. "The graphics stink," admits Arthur Kramer, a psychologist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who designed the game in the early 1980s. Gameplay is fairly complex, however: Players must shoot down a fortress with their ship while avoiding enemies, the bad guys look a lot like the good guys, and the ship has no brakes.

Over the years, researchers have used the game to study memory, motor control, and learning speed. The U.S. Air Force and the Israeli air force have even changed their training regimens based on how cadets fared as players. Recent studies have suggested that players appear to heavily utilize their striatum during gameplay. So Kramer and Kirk Erickson, a psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, decided to investigate whether the size of the striatum alone might be responsible for these abilities.

The duo recruited nearly 40 male and female students, ranging from 18 to 28 years of age, from Kramer's university. Students were taught the basics of the game and then placed in a magnetic resonance imaging machine that measured their striatum volume. By the end of the study, each participant had played over 300 3-minute games of Space Fortress.

Some students found the game more challenging than others. Those with larger striatums picked up the game faster, for example, and they shifted playing strategies more effectively than did students with smaller striatums. This indicates that even among highly educated people, the size of the striatum can play a significant role in skills such as learning and multitasking, the team reports today in Cerebral Cortex. The next step, Erickson says, is to figure out whether playing the game can alter striatum size and function.

That could help answer the question of whether some people are born with larger striatums than others, or whether this region becomes bigger as people develop certain skills, says Yaakov Stern, a cognitive neuroscientist at Columbia University. But even though you're stuck with the brain you've got, Stern says you'll do fine. He recently started using Space Fortress to test cognition in the elderly and found that even though this group takes longer than most college students do to figure it out, they still get the hang of it eventually.

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