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Show a smoker a lighter, and he or she will get the urge for a cigarette. The same physiological responses that trigger a smoker’s craving may also be at work in the brains of people who spend a lot of time playing video games, researchers say. And that could add more fuel to the long and heated argument over whether video games are hazardously addictive.

In new research presented Monday at the Society for Neurosciences meeting in Washington, DC, neuroscientist Sabine Grusser-Sinopoli of the Charite-University Medicine in Berlin showed pictures of video games to a group of men who displayed signs of gaming to excess, such as neglecting work or school for gaming. Using electroencephalography (EEG) to measure brain activity, Grusser-Sinopoli found that gamers respond to game-related pictures much as gamblers respond to the sight of cards or heroin addicts to the sight of needles. The findings are evidence of the addictive potential of video games, Grusser-Sinopoli says.

In fact, evidence for and against that conclusion has been building for more than a decade. Addiction experts say that almost any exciting activity can develop into a compulsion that disrupts daily activities, such as work, school, sleep, or time spent with the family.

But whether society should treat immersion in video games as a risk tantamount to abusing drugs and alcohol is hotly debated.

Grusser-Sinopoli’s own work is built around the idea that many of the most long-lasting effects of drug addiction are the result of learned responses, rather than the drugs’ direct chemical effects. Addicts learn to associate neutral cues, such as the street where they used to buy heroin, with the physical response caused by the drug. Such a link remains years after a user has overcome a physical dependence on a drug – and can easily trigger a relapse.

Grusser-Sinopoli and colleagues study responses to these cues in both drug addicts and people with behavioral compulsions, such as gambling, with the hope of creating better treatments. She began studying video games after getting inquiries from parents whose children spent entire weekends game-playing.

In previous research, Grusser-Sinopoli has shown that heroin addicts, alcoholics, and compulsive gamblers respond to addiction-related cues much like they do to strongly emotional stimuli, such as prurient pictures, and that they consider the cues to be pleasurable. But drug- or gambling-related cues induce a neutral response in non-addicts.

“You see the cue and feel a craving,” says Grusser-Sinopoli. “It’s not always conscious, but the physiological system is reacting.” She says the same link may develop in excessive gamers.

Other experts are more cautious about comparing the enticing qualities of gaming to the addictive potential of drugs. “Gaming is not a drug. It’s an activity like working out,” says Kurt Squire, an education researcher at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

“Games are compelling, people get very wrapped up,” Squire adds. “But it rarely gets to the point where you would actually want to compare that response to a drug.”

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