New research has linked Internet addictions with a chemical imbalance in the brain. In the small study, presented today at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America in Chicago, 19 participants with addictions to phones, tablets, and computers exhibited disproportionately high levels of a neurotransmitter that inhibits brain activity.
The good news: After nine weeks of therapy, the participants’ brain chemicals normalized, and their screen time decreased, says Hyung Suk Seo, a professor of neuroradiology at Korea University in Seoul, who presented the study.
Seo and his colleagues discovered the brain chemical imbalance using magnetic resonance spectroscopy—an imaging technique that detects changes in certain metabolites in the brain. The tool showed that participants with Internet addictions, compared with a control group, had elevated levels of gamma aminobutyric acid, or GABA, a neurotransmitter that has been linked with other addictions and psychiatric disorders.
The participants—19 young people in Korea with an average age of 15—had all been diagnosed with Internet and smartphone addictions. A diagnosis of Internet addiction typically means that the person uses the Internet to the point that it interferes with daily life. Participants also had significantly higher scores in depression, anxiety, insomnia, and impulsivity, compared with nonaddicted teenagers.
Twelve of the addicts were then given nine weeks of a type of addiction treatment called cognitive behavioral therapy. After the treatment, Seo again measured their GABA levels, and found that they had normalized.
Even more important, the number of hours the kids spent in front of a screen also decreased. “Being able to observe normalization—that’s a very intriguing finding,” says Max Wintermark, a neuroradiologist at Stanford University who was not involved in the study. Finding a way to monitor the effect of an addiction treatment—especially some kind of early indicator—can be difficult, he says. “So to have some kind of biomarker that you extract from an imaging technique that allows you to monitor the effect of your treatment and tell you early on whether it’s succeeding—that’s extremely valuable,” he says.
Wintermark notes that since there were only 19 people in the study group, the measurements of their GABA levels “should be taken with a grain of salt.” A study of a larger population would be needed to draw conclusions about the role of the chemical in Internet addictions. The reduction in addiction symptoms, however, is a significant finding because “each patient serves as his or her own control,” he says.
Other research groups have used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to identify structural changes in the brain caused by Internet addictions. Some have even observed abnormal white matter and shrinkage of brain tissue linked to screen addiction.
Continuing such studies is important, given the increase in Internet, phone, and tablet use globally. “Those devices have become such an integral part of our lives. We might not meet the diagnostic criteria of addiction, but it’s something that we all experience to a certain degree,” Wintermark says. Seo’s study “gives us a bit of hope” that there are “things we can do to get back to normal.”
Emily Waltz is a contributing editor at Spectrum covering the intersection of technology and the human body. Her favorite topics include electrical stimulation of the nervous system, wearable sensors, and tiny medical robots that dive deep into the human body. She has been writing for Spectrum since 2012, and for the Nature journals since 2005. Emily has a master's degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and an undergraduate degree from Vanderbilt University. She aims to say something true and useful in every story she writes. Contact her via @EmWaltz on Twitter or through her website.