Worried you or a loved one are too attached to your phone? There may be good reason for concern and now scientific proof, as well. Researchers have found an imbalance in brain chemistry of young people addicted to smartphones and the internet.
They presented their findings at the Nov. 30 annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA), concluding that the addicted teenagers in their study had significantly higher scores in depression, anxiety, impulsivity, and insomnia severity.
The Science Behind the Findings
The research was led by Hyung Suk Seo, M.D., a professor of neuroradiology at Korea University in Seoul, South Korea -- working with Eun-Kee Jeong, Ph.D., Sungwon Choi, Yunna Kwon, Hae-Jeong Park, and InSeong Kim.
Dr. Seo and colleagues used magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) -- a type of MRI -- to measure the brain's chemical composition in a group of 19 smartphone- and internet-addicted teenagers, including 9 males and 10 females, average age 15.5 years old. They compared the results against a gender- and age-matched control group and found a significant difference.
First, to determine the severity of addiction, the research team used standardized internet and smartphone addiction tests. Questions focused on the extent to which phone and internet use impacts daily routines, social life, productivity, sleeping patterns, and feelings. The higher the score, the more severe the addiction.
Dr. Seo reported that the addicted teenagers had significantly higher scores in depression, anxiety, insomnia severity and impulsivity.
The researchers then performed MRS exams on the addicted youth prior to and following a behavioral therapy program. Twelve of the 19 addicted youth received nine weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy designed to overcome their addiction.
For comparison, a single MRS exam was performed on the control patients. The goal of the MRS exams was to measure levels of "gamma aminobutyric acid, or GABA, a neurotransmitter in the brain that inhibits or slows down brain signals, and glutamate-glutamine (Glx), a neurotransmitter that causes neurons to become more electrically excited."
The researchers explained that, "previous studies have found GABA to be involved in vision and motor control and the regulation of various brain functions, including anxiety."
Compared to the healthy control-subjects, the smartphone- and internet-addicted youth (prior to therapy) exhibited significantly increased ratios of GABA-to-Glx in the anterior cingulate cortex.
Dr. Seo said the ratios of GABA-to-creatine and GABA-to-glutamate were significantly correlated to clinical scales of internet and smartphone addictions, depression and anxiety. Having too much GABA, the researchers explained, can result in a number of side effects, including drowsiness and anxiety.
What Can We Conclude?
This particular study was fairly small, with only 19 test subjects and 19 controls. And, while it shows a correlation between addiction and anxiety/depression, it does not necessarily show causation. It's possible that anxiety and depression cause teens to be more likely to over-use their electronic devices. Or, the use of the devices could be causing the problems.
The researchers concluded that more study is needed to understand the clinical implications of the findings. For now, Dr. Seo believes that, "increased GABA in the anterior cingulate gyrus" of the brains of internet- and smartphone-addicted youth may be related to the "functional loss of integration and regulation of processing in the cognitive and emotional neural network."
In addition, "The increased GABA levels and disrupted balance between GABA and glutamate in the anterior cingulate cortex may contribute to our understanding the pathophysiology of and treatment for addictions," Dr. Seo said.
That's a mouthful for most of us. But, the good news they reported is that GABA-to-Glx ratios in the addicted subjects significantly decreased or normalized after cognitive behavioral therapy.
That means, if you or your loved one is suffering from smartphone or internet addiction, therapy can help. And, if you see someone going down the path toward addiction, know that it's more than just a bad-habit, and intervention may be needed.