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This Is Your Brain Online

This Is Your Brain Online

Maybe the Internet won't exactly fry your brain, but it could change it in other unwelcome ways. A new study found a correlation between Internet addiction and specific brain changes often observed in alcoholics and drug addicts. There was evidence of disruption to the connections in the nerve fibers that connect brain areas involved in emotions, decision making and self-control.

By Rob Spiegel
01/12/12 12:53 PM PT

Too many hours of Internet use might actually change your brain. Researchers in China have concluded that those who are addicted to the Internet may experience changes in the brain that are similar to those seen in individuals hooked on drugs or alcohol.

A research team lead by Hao Lei of the Chinese Academy of Sciences used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to scan the brains of 35 male and female adolescents. Seventeen members of the group were classified as having Internet addiction disorder (IAD), based on interviews about their behavior.

In the brain scans of those adolescents with IAD, there were changes in the white matter of the brain, the area that contains nerve fibers. There was evidence of disruption to the connections in the nerve fibers that connect brain areas involved in emotions, decision making and self-control. The changes appeared similar to those seen in brains scans of individuals addicted to alcohol, cocaine, heroin and other drugs, the researchers noted.

The study's findings were published in the scientific journal PLoS ONE.

Addiction of the Young

Earlier studies have revealed a direct correlation between age and Internet addiction. Young adults are more likely to be addicted to the Internet than any other age group, according to SafetyWeb, an Internet monitoring service for parents.

It has not been determined whether there is an intrinsic vulnerability among young people or whether it's simply that young adults are early technology adopters and thus have been affected sooner than other age groups, SafetyWeb noted.

At reStart, an Internet addiction recovery program, the vast majority of patients are adolescents.

"They fit into the category of failure to launch," Hilarie Cash, PhD, LMHC, executive director of reStart, told TechNewsWorld.

They haven't figured out how to assume adult responsibilities, she said. "They don't have basic knowledge of how the world works and how to function in it."

Anyone Can Get Addicted

While some may be more susceptible, it's possible that too much Internet use could result in addiction in any user.

"Overexposure can trigger this in any brain," said Cash. "We all are vulnerable."

Device addiction isn't limited to the Internet, she adde, noting that "many of us are mildly addicted to our phones."

One danger sign could be as obvious as overuse. This may apply to surfing the Internet just as easily as to other behaviors.

"Overexposure of any substance or device can trigger adverse reactions such as IAD," Laura DiDio, principal analyst at ITIC, told TechNewsWorld.

There is no longer any argument that addiction to the Internet, television or video games is real, she maintained.

"The real and present danger is that there is not enough information available to predict who might be affected and under what circumstances," said DiDio. "So the fact that one can't predict when IAD might strike makes it all the more frightening."

Limit Internet Time and Get Outside

A number of therapies can help Internet addicts recover, Cash said. "We do a combination of psychotherapy and helping these people figure out the skills they need to function in the world. We work on both physical and emotional health."

The road to recovery could include plenty of hiking and backpacking, she observed. "That's a way to get them both physically fit and reconnected to the world."

Perhaps the most basic step in breaking the addiction is to deny access to the Internet.

A doctor might advise such people to go cold turkey and quit the Internet altogether until they can get the addiction under control, noted DiDio. "Bottom line, it's still very early stages in the research of the triggers and impact of IAD both physically and mentally."


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