Does “Smartphone Addiction” Show Up In Teens’ Brains?

(CBS News) — Teens fixated on their smartphones experience changes to their brain chemistry that mirror those prompted by addiction, a new study suggests.

Kids who compulsively used the internet or fiddled with their phones tended to have increased neurotransmitter activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region tied to the brain’s systems of behavior reward, control of inhibition and mood regulation, a team of South Korean researchers found.

“This particular region is well-known to be involved in addiction based upon the modulation of those kinds of behaviors,” said Dr. Christopher Whitlow, an associate professor of radiology with the Wake Forest Substance Addiction and Abuse Center in Winston-Salem, N.C. “The authors are showing an effect in part of the circuitry of the brain that’s involved in addiction.”

The research team, led by Dr. Hyung Suk Seo at Korea University in Seoul, used a scanning technique called magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) to evaluate the brains of 19 teenagers diagnosed with internet or smartphone addiction.

Researchers used standardized addiction tests to diagnose the teens and judge the severity of their addiction. Questions focused on the extent to which internet or smartphone use affected their daily routine, social life, productivity, sleeping patterns and emotions.

MRS scans are used to track concentrations of biochemicals in the brain, and are often used to study changes wrought by brain tumors, strokes, mood disorders and Alzheimer’s disease.

Compared against normal teens, teenagers with an internet or smartphone addiction experienced increased levels in their anterior cingulate cortex of a neurotransmitter called gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), which inhibits or slows down brain signals, the researchers said.

Their smartphone use “alters the function of this key brain area and was correlated with clinical measures of addiction, depression and anxiety,” said Whitlow, who was not part of the study team.

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