DEC 07, 2017 6:49 AM PST

Staring at a Smartphone For Too Long Can Affect Your Brain

It's hardly news that many people are attached to their smartphones. Everywhere you look, people are staring down at a tiny screen, mostly oblivious to what's going on around them.

Information collected in a survey by the Pew Research Center says that 77% of all Americans own a smartphone. Among 18-29-year-olds. 96% live in a home that contains at least one smartphone, and 51% put the number of household cell phones at three. In that same survey, 46% of people put their cellphone as something they "Could not live without." They likely didn't mean that literally, but it's a significant finding on how much users value their devices.

But what is all of this screen time doing to the brains of young people who spend so many hours on them? A study conducted in South Korea showed that there are definite differences in brain chemistry among teens that are addicted to their smartphones.

Dr. Hyung Suk Seo is a professor of neuroradiology at Korea University in Seoul, South Korea. Using magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) scans he and his team were able to see the chemical composition of the brain and those details revealed that smartphone addiction impacts the brain in a physical and quantifiable way.

MRS technology is similar to MRI scans; however, the equipment measures chemical composition in the brain, rather than just images and structure. Dr. Hyung and his team enrolled 19 young men who had a diagnosis of internet or smartphone addiction in his study. The young men had a mean age of 15.5 years. For a control group, there were 19 participants, also all male, in the same age group, but who were healthy and had no addiction issues. Of the nineteen addicted subjects, twelve received nine weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy during the study.

Scoring the addiction severity of the participant was done with standard assessments that asked about the social lives, productivity levels, sleeping patterns, emotions and daily routines of the study volunteers. A higher score indicated a more severe addiction. Along with the addiction issues, scores on tests for depression, anxiety, and impulsivity were significantly higher among the addicted group.

The MRS exams were performed on all study participants to establish a baseline. The group of addicted young men also underwent a second MRS study after the behavioral therapy. The researchers were looking to measure two particular neurotransmitters, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and glutamate-glutamine (Glx.) GABA is a chemical in the brain that is responsible for electrically exciting the neurons. It's involved in vision and motor control as well as processing some emotions, including anxiety.

The results showed that the addicted smartphone users had a much higher level of GABA circulating in the anterior cingulate cortices of their brains. Looking at the ratios, the team found that those with higher levels of GABA also had higher scores on the scales that measured addiction, anxiety, and depression. After undergoing therapy, these ratios went back down to normal levels. Dr. Hyung explained, "The increased GABA levels and disrupted balance between GABA and glutamate in the anterior cingulate cortex may contribute to our understanding the pathophysiology of and treatment for addictions."

The video talks more about the study, check it out.

 

Sources: Radiological Society of North America Pew Research Center, Psychology Today

About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
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