According to a recent study presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA), researchers have found an imbalance in the brain chemistry of young people addicted to smartphones and the internet.
Amazingly, 92 percent of young adults aged 18 to 29 use a smartphone and almost 80 percent of teens aged 12 to 17 use cell phones. Teens are also more likely than adults to access the internet from their mobile phone, noted a recent Pew Research Mobile Fact Sheet. With the frequency of smartphone use may come behavioral addictions especially in young adults. Similar to gambling or video game addiction, smartphone addiction can lead to severe life impairments and disruptions and chemical imbalances in the teen brain.
A research team led by Hyung Suk Seo, M.D., professor of neuroradiology at Korea University in Seoul, South Korea, conducted a study of 19 young people diagnosed with smartphone or internet addiction and 19 age and gender matched healthy controls. Twelve of the addicted teens received cognitive behavioral theraphy (CBT) adapted from a result-based cognitive behavioral program for gaming addiction. Study participants received standardized tests to evaluate the extent of their smartphone addiction and the negative impact such behavior had on their overall quality of life including sleep patterns and feelings. Depression, anxiety, and impulsivity were high score areas. “The higher the score, the more severe the addiction,” reported Dr. Seo.
Using magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS), a type of MRI, to exam the brain chemistry of smartphone and internet addicted teens, Dr. Seo and his team were able to study addicted teenage brain chemistry before and after cognitive behavioral therapy. Researchers also used a single MRS study on control patients to measure levels of gamma aminobutyric acid, or GABA, a neurotransmitter in the brain that inhibits brain signals, and glutamate-glutamine (Glx) , a neurotransmitter that causes neurons to become hyper electrically charged. Past studies have found GABA to be involved in vision, motor control and the regulation of important brain functions, including anxiety.
The results? Dr. Seo’s team found significantly higher GABA and Glx levels in the brains of smartphone and internet addicted teens. And, the ratios of GABA to creatine and GABA to glutamate were significantly correlated to clinical scales of internet and smartphone addictions, depression and anxiety. Too much GABA can result in negative side effects like sleepiness or drowsiness or according to Dr. Seo, a functional loss of integration and regulation of processing in the cognitive and emotional neural network.
While more research is needed to further explore the extent smartphone and internet addiction can cause chemical imbalances in the teenage brain, Dr. Seo did note a decrease and normalization of brain chemistry after cognitive behavioral therapy. And while obsessive use of a smartphone maybe socially acceptable, this study demonstrates that smartphone and internet addiction can have significant neurological implications in the brain chemistry of teenagers.