Internet addiction causes brain changes, study claims
Angela Mulholland, CTVNews.ca
Published Thursday, January 12, 2012 6:26PM EST
People with Internet Addiction Disorder have the same kind of brain changes seen in those hooked on drugs or alcohol, new research has found.
Haven't heard of Internet Addiction Disorder? The relatively recently recognized condition that's marked by a compulsion to use the Internet is considered an "impulse control disorder," rather than a full addiction.
Sufferers have a hard time reining in their use of the Web, and typically spend unhealthy amounts of time online, to the point that it impairs their work or family life. Denied access to computers, Web addicts may experience withdrawal symptoms including obsessive thoughts, and involuntary typing movements.
Until now, identifying IAD has meant assessing symptoms. But in this new study, published in PLoS One, researchers from China found actual brain changes in the brains of young Web addicts.
The study was small, carried out on just 35 men and women aged between 14 and 21. Seventeen of the participants were classified as having IAD based on their responses to a questionnaire that asked such questions as, "Have you lied to family members, a therapist or others to conceal the extent of involvement with the Internet?"
The scans revealed disruption to connections in the "white matter" of the addicts' brains, which is the tissue inside the brain that lies under the "grey matter" and that contains nerve fibres.
The disruption was found in nerve fibres that linked brain areas in the orbito-frontal cortex that are involved in emotions, decision making, and self-control.
The study authors say their findings are significant, given that previous studies have shown abnormal white matter in the brains of people addicted to alcohol, cocaine and other drugs.
In comments made to BBC, Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones, a consultant psychiatrist and honorary senior lecturer at Imperial College London, said the research was "groundbreaking."
"We are finally being told what clinicians suspected for some time now, that white matter abnormalities in the orbito-frontal cortex and other truly significant brain areas are present not only in addictions where substances are involved but also in behavioural ones such as Internet addiction," she said.
But Colin Drummond, professor of addiction psychiatry at Kings College London, said while the findings are interesting, he's not convinced that Internet addiction is a true addiction or that it causes the brain to "re-wire."
"If people have emotional problems and that leads them to use the Internet obsessively then they obviously need help to deal with those problems, but that's quite different to saying that the Internet is addictive," he told The Guardian.
"...I'm not denying it's a problem for individuals, but trying to classify it as an addiction has risks attached to it. They are treating an addiction rather than emotional problems that might lead to the emotional behaviour."