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J Neurosci. 2015 Dec 9;35(49):16116-25. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2580-15.2015.

Virtual Environmental Enrichment through Video Games Improves Hippocampal-Associated Memory.

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Center for Neurobiology, Learning, and Memory, and Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, University of California, Irvine, Irvine, California 92697.
Center for Neurobiology, Learning, and Memory, and Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, University of California, Irvine, Irvine, California 92697


The positive effects of environmental enrichment and their neural bases have been studied extensively in the rodent (van Praag et al., 2000). For example, simply modifying an animal's living environment to promote sensory stimulation can lead to (but is not limited to) enhancements in hippocampal cognition and neuroplasticity and can alleviate hippocampal cognitive deficits associated with neurodegenerative diseases and aging. We are interested in whether these manipulations that successfully enhance cognition (or mitigate cognitive decline) have similar influences on humans. Although there are many "enriching" aspects to daily life, we are constantly adapting to new experiences and situations within our own environment on a daily basis. Here, we hypothesize that the exploration of the vast and visually stimulating virtual environments within video games is a human correlate of environmental enrichment. We show that video gamers who specifically favor complex 3D video games performed better on a demanding recognition memory task that assesses participants' ability to discriminate highly similar lure items from repeated items. In addition, after 2 weeks of training on the 3D video game Super Mario 3D World, naive video gamers showed improved mnemonic discrimination ability and improvements on a virtual water maze task. Two control conditions (passive and training in a 2D game, Angry Birds), showed no such improvements. Furthermore, individual performance in both hippocampal-associated behaviors correlated with performance in Super Mario but not Angry Birds, suggesting that how individuals explored the virtual environment may influence hippocampal behavior.


The hippocampus has long been associated with episodic memory and is commonly thought to rely on neuroplasticity to adapt to the ever-changing environment. In animals, it is well understood that exposing animals to a more stimulating environment, known as environmental enrichment, can stimulate neuroplasticity and improve hippocampal function and performance on hippocampally mediated memory tasks. Here, we suggest that the exploration of vast and visually stimulating environments within modern-day video games can act as a human correlate of environmental enrichment. Training naive video gamers in a rich 3D, but not 2D, video game, resulted in a significant improvement in hippocampus-associated cognition using several behavioral measures. Our results suggest that modern day video games may provide meaningful stimulation to the human hippocampus.


environmental enrichment; hippocampus; neurogenesis; pattern separation; video games

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