Good at games? Thank your basal ganglia

Researchers say they can predict a person’s ability at video games simply by giving them an MRI.

The US team analyzed background activity in the basal ganglia, a group of brain structures known to be important for procedural learning, coordinated movement and feelings of reward.

Using magnetic resonance imaging and a method known as multivoxel pattern analysis, the researchers found significant differences in patterns of a particular type of MRI signal, called T2*, in the basal ganglia of study subjects.

These differences allowed the researchers to predict between 55 and 68 percent of the difference in game performance between the 34 people who later learned to play.

“By analyzing these images in a new way, we find variations among participants in the patterns of brain activity in their basal ganglia,” said Ohio State University psychology professor Dirk Bernhardt-Walther.

“Powerful statistical algorithms allow us to connect these patterns to individual learning success. Our method may be useful for predicting differences in abilities of individuals in other contexts as well.”

After having their brains imaged, participants spent 20 hours learning to play Space Fortress, a ‘quite challenging’ video game developed at the University of Illinois in which players try to destroy a fortress without losing their own ship to one of several potential hazards.

None of the subjects had much experience with video games before the study.

“Our data suggest that some persistent physiological and or neuroanatomical difference is actually the predictor of learning,” said University of Illinois psychology professor Art Kramer.

But, he says, the findings shouldn’t be interpreted to mean that some people are destined to succeed or fail at a given task. “We know that many of these components of brain structure and function are changeable,” he points out.