Smartphone addiction could change brain chemistry, study reports

Being addicted to the internet and constantly using smartphones could harm brain chemistry, according to new research presented at the Radiological Society of North America’s annual meeting in Chicago.

The new study comes from scientists at Korea University, who found that “internet-addicted” teenagers tend to have an imbalance of chemicals in their brain. Such an imbalance is similar to the ones noted in people with anxiety or depression.

The team made this discovery by using magnetic resonance spectroscopy — a form of MRI that can reveal changes in the chemical composition of the brain — to analyze the brains of 19 internet-and-smartphone-addicted teenagers, and 19 non-addicted teenagers. Researchers used questionnaires to measure whether or not teens were addicted.

The data showed that teens with internet and smartphone addiction had a clear overabundance of a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in one region of the limbic system. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, which means it blocks nerve cells from firing. While that can be helpful, too much of it in the wrong areas can also lead to issues.

“When the normal function of the limbic system is disturbed, patients can develop anxiety, depression or addiction,” explained Max Wintermark, a professor of radiology and the chief of neuroradiology at Stanford University who was not involved in the study, according to Live Science.

This research is important because it sheds light on potential effects of the growing popularity of screens and mobile devices. There have been several studies showing how alcohol can lead to chemical imbalances throughout the brain, but this is the first to look at the effect of screens. 

Simply using the internet for a lot of the day does not constitute an addiction. Rather, according to the American Psychiatric Association, those addicted excessively use the internet in a way that interferes with their everyday life. Rates of such addiction in young people range from less than 1 percent to 18 percent.

The subjects in the recent study took standardized tests that diagnosed internet and smartphone addiction. Those who were addicted typically said their smartphone and internet use got in the way of their daily routines, social lives, sleep, and productivity. They also had significantly higher scores in depression, anxiety, insomnia, and impulsivity than the control group.

The study was thorough, but also small. That means it is too early to say that the chemical imbalances observed in the teens’ brains were linked to clinical problems such as anxiety and depression. Further testing on a larger group is needed before such claims can be made.

The study has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

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