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How Video Games Can Cause Seizures

October 1, 2019


Video games get a bad rap, but can they cause
seizures? Hello Everyone, Crystal your friendly neuroscientist
here for DNews to talk videogames and epilepsy. Normally, the activity in your brain is a
lot of neurons firing at different times. The activity of these neurons are highly regulated
and there are inhibitory systems in place to make sure they don’t fire out of control.
Right now many of your brain regions are active processing this stimulating video, but they
are all working independently of each other. In some cases though, a glitch can occur and
the activity syncs up. When this happens it can trigger what we know as a seizure. Seizures are often described as a storm of
concerted brain activity with all circuits firing in rhythm together. There are many
different types of seizures, and not all lead to a diagnosis of epilepsy. Epilepsy is a
disorder characterized by a specific form of recurring seizure, a reduced seizure threshold,
and it usually requires an electroencephalogram (EEG) or neuroimaging for diagnosis. It might
come as a surprise but over the course of a lifetime 4% of our population will experience
epilepsy and it is the fourth most common neurological disorder on par with dementia
and stroke. What does this have to do with video games?
Well, somehow it seems that certain types of repetitive sensory stimuli can trigger
a seizure, and pulsing light, like the flashes from a computer or television screen can fit
the bill. About 3 percent of people with epilepsy, and
some individuals without, experience photosensitive seizures in response to flashing light. These
types of seizures are more common in children and adolescents, the portion of the population
for whom video games are the greatest concern. Many people don’t know that they are sensitive
to flickering lights until they experience a seizure. Factors that can trigger a photosensitive
seizure are 1) how quickly the light flashes, 2) the intensity of the flashing lights, 3)
the distance between the viewer and the light source, and 4) the color or wavelength of
the light. Any repetitive visual stimuli can trigger
seizure, video games are seen as frequent culprits, but the incidence of these seizure
events has been on the rise since the advent of television in the 1950s. In the 90’s
there was a famous Japanese incident in which over 600 children experienced seizures and
were hospitalized after watching a saturday morning Pokemon cartoon, and in the UK a noodle
commercial that triggered seizures led to increased regulations for broadcast television.
Here in the united states, seizure warnings are becoming more and more common, but we
have yet to enact the regulatory approaches taken by the UK and Japan. It is important to note that isolated seizures
caused by a distinct visual triggers are not enough for an epilepsy diagnosis. So to say
videogames cause epilepsy is a bit misleading. But they can cause seizures! And these episodes
can occur when they are least expected are not without consequence. Repeated seizure
activity can lead to cognitive impairment, behavioral abnormalities and even brain damage!
So the next time you sit down at a computer or television screen just know that you might
be putting your brain at risk for much more than just a good time. For other new research on how video games
affect the brain, check out this recent video from Trace

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