University of Wisconsin–Madison

Richard Davidson, PhD – Slide of the Week

Title: Increased connectivity in an emotional regulation network of the brain in adolescents produced by playing a prosocial videogame predicts empathic accuracy

Legend: Game-related changes in empathic accuracy were associated with rs-fMRI connectivity changes in
emotion regulation networks. Participants who improved in empathic accuracy had increased right amygdala
rs-fMRI connectivity with VMPFC (a) and DMPFC (b) after Crystals game-play compared to Bastion.
Independently-defined functional seed ROIs are overlaid in blue (DMPFC) and green (VMPFC) at slice x = 47
in Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) template space. The Harvard-Oxford atlas right amygdala target ROI is depicted in yellow at slice y = 59 in MNI space. Envelopes represent 1 standard error from the point estimates and raw data points are overlaid.

Citation: Kral, T. R. A., Stodola, D. E., Birn, R. M., Mumford, J. A., Solis, E., Flook, L., … Davidson, R. J. (2018). Neural correlates of video game empathy training in adolescents: a randomized trial. Npj Science of Learning, 3(1), 13.

Abstract: The ability to understand emotional experiences of others, empathy, is a valuable skill for effective social interactions. Various types of training increase empathy in adolescents, but their impact on brain circuits underlying empathy has not been examined. Video games provide a unique medium familiar and engaging to adolescents and can be used to deliver training at scale. We developed an empathy training video game, Crystals of Kaydor (Crystals), and investigated whether playing Crystals increases empathic accuracy (EA) and related brain activation in adolescents (N = 74; 27 female; mean age(sd) = 12.8(0.7) years; age range 11–14 years). Participants completed a resting state functional MRI (rs-fMRI) scan and an EA task during an fMRI scan before and after 2 weeks of daily gameplay with either the empathy training game, Crystals (N = 34), or the commercial video game Bastion (N = 40), an active control condition. There were no group differences in EA improvement following gameplay, however, engagement with training aspects of Crystals was associated with a higher increase in EA-related activation in right temporoparietal junction following gameplay. Moreover, rs-fMRI connectivity in empathy-related brain circuits (posterior cingulate–medial prefrontal cortex; MPFC) was stronger after Crystals gameplay compared to Bastion. The more individuals’ EA increased following Crystals versus Bastion, the stronger their rs-fMRI connectivity in brain circuits relevant for emotion regulation (amygdala-MPFC). These findings suggest that a video game designed to increase empathic accuracy produces behaviorally-relevant, functional neural changes in fewer than 6 h of gameplay in adolescents.

About the Lab: Research in Davidson’s laboratory is focused on the neural bases of disordered and healthy emotion and emotional style and methods to promote human flourishing, including meditation and related contemplative practices. His studies have included persons of all ages, from birth though old age, and have also included individuals with disorders of emotion, such as mood and anxiety disorders and autism, as well as expert meditation practitioners with tens of thousands of hours of experience. His research uses a wide range of methods, including different varieties of MRI, positron emission tomography, electroencephalography, and modern genetic and epigenetic methods.

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