Study Finds Brain Differences in Internet Addicts are Similar to Alcoholics

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internet addictionAccording to a recent study, addiction to the Internet might cause the same changes to the brain that occur with alcoholism and cocaine addiction.

The study involved 17 Chinese teenagers who were given MRI brain scans.  The results of the study, which were published in the journal PLoS One, found that teens who were self-described Internet addicts had abnormal amounts of “white matter” surrounding the wiring between some neurons in the brain.  The teenagers with brain abnormalities admitted to being preoccupied with the Internet and to being unable to control their use of the Internet.  They also said they felt depressed, restless and irritable when they tried cut down on their use.

According to Jonathan Wallis, associate professor of neuroscience and psychology at UC Berkeley, the areas of the brain that the study pinpointed are known to be involved with compulsive behavior and addiction.  Gordon Harris, a professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School, said that the new research provides insight into why some people become addicted.  Instead of being due to weakness or a lack of will power, addiction may have more to do with brain chemistry.

The possibility of becoming addicted to the Internet has been a controversial topic in the field of mental health.  Some experts have suggested that up to 10% of Internet users have an addiction disorder, becoming so absorbed while online that they lose track of time and forget to eat or drink for prolonged periods.  There have been previous studies that examine the psychological effects of compulsive Internet use, but this recent study was the first to look at brain structure and function in Internet addicts.

In an interview with the BBC, Dr. Henrietta Bowden-Jones, a psychiatrist who runs the only public clinic for Internet addicts in Britain, said that the majority of people who are addicted to the Internet are gamers who become absorbed in role playing.  According to Dr. Bowden-Jones, although many people are increasing their use of the Internet for work, school or entertainment, only those who spend so many hours on the Internet that it impacts their obligations and relationships can be described as addicted.

Several deaths throughout the world have been attributed to the Internet and gaming addiction, including a South Korean man who died of cardiac arrest in 2005 after playing an online game for 50 consecutive hours and a Chinese man who died in 2007 after 3 days of gaming.  In the U.S., several cases of murder have been tied to people who sought revenge when their video game machines were taken away.  There have also been several manslaughter cases involving parents whose infants died while they played online games.

Scientists still don’t know whether the brain differences seen in the study represent the results of addiction or if they are instead the cause of addiction.