Smartphone addiction messes up brain chemistry

The brains of young people who use their smartphones or the internet too much sustain chemical changes. These change correlate significantly to diagnoses of addiction, depression and anxiety.

A team of researchers around South Korean radiology professor Hyung Suk Seo managed to detect changes in the chemistry of brains of teenagers who either use the internet or smartphones in an addictive manner.

The scientists from Korea University in Seoul tested 19 young men who had an average age of 15 1/2 years. All were suffering from smartphone or internet addiction. The doctors detected the severity of addiction through a standardized test, asking patients the extent to which they used the internet or smartphones and how that affected their daily routines, social life, productivity, sleeping patterns and feelings.

As a control group, researchers also tested 19 boys of equal age who did not have diagnosed signs of addiction as a control group.

Dr. Seo reported that the addicted teenagers significantly more often reported depression, anxiety, insomnia and impulsivity.

Looking for neurotransmitters

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Science | 30.11.2017

Smartphone addiction changes the brain

The doctors took 3D images of the brains of the participants using magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS). It works like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) - a three-dimensional x-ray. However, in addition to the regular MRI imaging, MRS is also able to display the chemical content of fabric and cells. 

The scientists were particularly interested in gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) - a neurotransmitter in the brain that inhibits or slows down brain signals. They were also looking for the amino acids glutamate and glutamine, which interact with GABA. Those control the extent to which neurons become electrically excited.

GABA has an influence on vision, motor controls and on the regulation of various brain functions such as anxiety and sleepiness.

Brain chemistry losing its balance

It turned out that the addicted teenagers had a higher amounts of GABA than glutamate and glutamine in their anterior cingulate cortex (a specific part of the front part of the inner brain).

Symbolbild Modell des menschlichen Gehirns

The cingulate cortex is the outer red area. The anterior cingulate cortex is located at the far right of the model.

The researchers also noted a significant correlation between the measurements and the diagnosed levels of addiction, depression and anxiety.

However, there is some good news, after all: Twelve of the addicted participants also took part in a cognitive behavioral therapy program, and the ratio of GABA to glutamate and glutamine normalized within those patients who received the nine-month therapy.

What the researchers want to find out next: Is there a similar imbalance in the GABA to glutamate/glutamine ratio in other patients with different forms of addiction?

The researchers presented their findings at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of Northern America (RSNA) in Chicago on November 30th 2017.


The NFL's first CTE diagnosis

"Iron Mike" Webster won four Super Bowls as a center for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s. However, after his career ended, the many hits to the head that he had received as a football player took their toll on his health. He died in 2002 at the age of just 50. After his death, Webster was diagnosed as having had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease.


A Hollywood film

Bennet Omalu, a forensic neuropathologist (pictured above, second from left) was the first to diagnose CTE in Webster and other former NFL players. He continued his research despite widespread and strong resistance to his findings. In 2015 director Peter Landesmann (above, right) directed the film "Concussion," in which actor Will Smith (left) played Omalu.


Gradual changes to the brain

Symptoms such as loss of speech, depression and dementia, which can be an indication of CTE, were first observed in boxers decades ago. Repeated blows to the head release the tau protein which accumulates in the brain. Those affected can experience changes to their personality, problems with aggression and even become susceptible to thoughts of suicide.


Suicide and a final wish

Between 2008 and 2015 Terry Long, Tom McHale, Jovan Belcher, Adrian Robinson and Junior Seau were among the former NFL players who committed suicide. In 2011, Dave Duerson, a former safety, shot himself through the heart instead of in the head. In his suicide note he asked that his brain be examined to see if he had CTE. Doctors found clear signs that he had had the disease.


The biggest stage

Head injuries occur in soccer as well. In the final of the 2014 World Cup in Rio de Janeiro, German midfielder Christoph Kramer was knocked out. He soldiered on for 14 minutes after the injury, which was a big risk, because a second hit shortly afterwards increases the danger of long-term damage. Even now, there is no universally agreed procedure for diagnosing brain injuries on the sidelines.


Risk varies by position

Brain injuries in soccer tend to occur when two players clash heads when going for ball or as the result of an elbow to the head. A recent study by the Federal Institute of Sports Sciences has found that the risk of head injury in soccer varies according to a player's position. Defenders are most at risk, followed by midfielders and strikers. The risk is by far the lowest for goalkeepers.


Which is the worst sport for concussions?

A study conducted by the Federal Institute for Sports Sciences, showed that rugby players are at the highest risk among athletes of suffering concussion. They are followed by American football players, ice hockey players and basketball players. Brain injuries are not as common in soccer, but in Germany, where it is the biggest sport, in absolute terms, it is where the most concussions occur.