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.
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.
Internet or smartphone addiction can be compared to other forms of behavioral addiction, such as addiction to gambling or pornography, said Dr. Sanjeev Kothare, chief of the division of child neurology at Cohen’s Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park, N.Y.
“It’s just an extension of the same idea,” Kothare said.
Parents who are concerned that their teens might be hooked on technology should restrict their smartphone or computer use.
“If you move your right hand, your left motor cortex gets more blood supply, and that is taken as a signal on the MRI,” Kothare said, providing an example of how fMRI could help doctors better understand the possible addictive effect.