Smartphone addiction creates chemical imbalance in brain

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As younger patients grow up using smartphones and the internet, some may become addicted to the technology and develop imbalances in brain chemistry, according to a study presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) in Chicago.

Currently, 46 percent of Americans report "not being able to live without their smartphones." Led by Hyung Suk Seo, MD, professor of neuroradiology at Korea University in Seoul, South Korea, researchers used magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS), a type of MRI that measures the brain's chemical composition, to gain insight into the effects of smartphone and internet addiction in young patients' brains.

The study enrolled 19 patients, with an average age of 15, who were diagnosed with internet or smartphone addiction, and 19 matched healthy participants. Standardized addiction tests were administered with questions focusing on how the technology affected their daily life, social life, sleeping patterns and feelings. Additionally, 12 of the addicted participants were provided nine weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy which had been modified from a therapy program from gaming addiction.

Results of the MRS showed increased levels of gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that slows brain signals, and glutamate-glutamine (Glx), a neurotransmitter that causes neurons to become electrically excited, in the anterior cingulate cortex of patients with smartphone and internet addiction. These increased ratios of Glx and GABA were significantly correlated with the clinical scales of smartphone and internet addictions, depression and anxiety. Additionally, Seo believed that these increased levels could be related to the functional loss of integration and regulation of processing in the cognitive and emotional neural network.

However, the ratios of GABA and Glx in addicted young patients can be significantly reduced or normalized with cognitive behavioral therapy.

“The increased GABA levels and disrupted balance between GABA and glutamate in the anterior cingulate cortex may contribute to our understanding the pathology of and treatment for addictions,” Seo said.