Internet addicts have brain changes similar to drug addicts and alcoholics, Chinese scientists found in a recent brain scan of 17 young web addicts.
Preliminary research by a team from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Wuhan showed that Internet addicts had changes in the white matter of their brains and disruptions in the connections in nerve fibers linking brain areas involved in emotions, decision-making and self-control.
Researchers say their discovery, published in the Jan. 11 issue of PLoS One, could lead to new treatments for addictive behavior.
For the study, the research team led by Dr. Hao Lei of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Wuhan carried out brain scans of 35 men and women aged between 14 and 21.
Based on their answers to a psychiatric diagnostic questionnaire, half of the group—at least 17 young adults—were classified as having Internet addiction disorder (IAD).
Specialized MRI scans were then done on the participants. The scans showed changes in the white matter of the brain—the part that contains nerve fibers—in those grouped as being web addicts, compared with non-addicts.
Evidence of disruption to connections in nerve fibers linking brain areas involved in emotions, decision-making and self-control was found.
“Overall, our findings indicate that IAD has abnormal white matter integrity in brain regions involving emotional generation and processing, executive attention, decision making and cognitive control,” Dr. Hao Lei and colleagues write in Plos One.
“The results also suggest that IAD may share psychological and neural mechanisms with other types of substance addiction and impulse control disorders,” he also said.
The Chinese researchers detected the brain changes using diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), a non-invasive MRI technique with capable of providing a quantitative measure of white matter damage.
Behavioral features were assessed using six questionnaires: the Young’s Internet Addiction Scale (YIAS), Time Management Disposition Scale (TMDS), Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ), Barratt Impulsiveness Scale-11 (BIS), the Screen for Child Anxiety Related Emotional Disorders (SCARED) and Family Assessment Device (FAD). All questionnaires were initially constructed in English and translated into Chinese.
The brain changes and their associated behavioral effects were analyzed based on the analyses of 40 previous brain scan studies on people with substance abuse and other forms of addiction, as well as baseline brain scans that identified the functions of each brain region.
The study was approved by the Ethics Committee of RenJi Hospital of Shanghai Jiao Tong University Medical School. The participants and their parents or legal guardians were informed of the aims of our study before MRI examinations and full written informed consent was obtained from the parents/guardians of each participant.