CHICAGO — If you’ve thought that teens who are constantly online are damaging their developing minds, you may be right. A recent study by Korean scientists discovered that young people addicted to their smartphones or the internet have brain chemical imbalances.
The research team led by Dr. Hyung Suk Seo, a professor of neuroradiology at Korea University in South Korea, used magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) to examine the immediate effect on the brains of smartphone- and internet-addicted teenagers. MRS is a type of MRI that detects chemical changes in the brain.
The study involved 38 teenagers about 15 or 16 years old. Half of them (10 females, nine males) had been diagnosed with smartphone or internet addiction, while the other half — the control group — was deemed otherwise healthy. Researchers used standardized tests to measure the severity of the teens’ addiction, questioning them on how smartphones or internet interfered with their daily routines, productivity, and mental health.
Twelve of the screen-addicted participants also received nine weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy modified from video game addiction therapy as a part of the study.
The researchers found that the addicted teenagers showed more signs and indications of depression, anxiety, insomnia, and impulsivity, according to Dr. Seo. One chemical the researchers looked for changes in before and after the cognitive behavioral therapy was gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA is a neurotransmitter that slows or speeds up brain signals and regulates anxiety. They also examined the glutamate-glutamine (Glx) activity in the participants, which causes neurons to become more electrically excited.
They found that the ratio of GABA to Glx was notably higher in the screen-addicted teens compared to the healthy ones.
“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,” says Seo in a news release by the Radiological Society of North America.
Seo says that high levels of GABA can lead to conditions like anxiety or make a person more drowsy. Thankfully, he notes that cognitive behavioral therapy was shown to be helpful in decreasing symptoms and lessening the chemical imbalance caused by addiction.
The study was presented at the Radiological Society of North America’s 103rd Scientific Assembly and Annual Meeting in November 2017.