A study conducted by researchers at the Korea University in Seoul, South Korea has shown that smartphone addiction creates a chemical imbalance in the brain.

The study looked at 10 youths who had been diagnosed with smartphone or internet addiction — 9 males and 10 females with a mean age of 15.5 years. To determine addiction, subjects were given standardized addiction tests to measure the severity of their addiction to their phones, asking them to what extent their smartphone use impacted their daily life, social life, productivity, sleeping patterns and feelings. Tests showed that the addicted teens had significantly higher scores in depression, anxiety, insomnia and impulsivity.

Researchers performed magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) exams on the addicted young people before and after administering behavioural therapy. They performed the MRS exam once on a control group of non-addicted youths. The MRS exam measured levels of gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter in the brain that slows down brain signals, and of glutamate-glutamine (Glx), a neurotransmitter that causes neurons to become more electrically excited. GABA has been found to contribute to vision, motor controls and other brain functions.

The images showed that the ratio of GABA to Glx was significantly higher in the addicted youths compared to the healthy cohort. High GABA levels may result in side effects, such as drowsiness and anxiety.

Hyung Suk Seo, lead researcher and professor of neuroradiology at Korea University in Seoul, noted that the imbalance in the brain caused by the increased GABA levels may be linked to cognitive problems with processing information and emotions.

The good news is that the effects of smartphone and internet addiction can be treated. Twelve of the addicted youths received nine weeks of cognitive behavioural therapy as part of the study and further MRS exams showed a significant decrease in GABA to Glx ratios or a return to normal levels. The treatment was modified from a cognitive therapy program for gaming addiction.

The study was presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) in November 2017.


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