Neurological Correlates of Online Addiction

March 21, 2016

Is Internet overuse a consequence of underlying brain anomalies or does the addiction produce brain anomalies?

Internet addiction is becoming a socially recognized problem. Individuals who self-report addiction to activities such as excessively checking email, looking for updates on social media, and compulsively tracking positive online responses such as “likes” and similar signs of social approval, may or may not make any efforts to curb the behaviors.

While some people who self-report addiction may be conscientiously vigilant about avoiding negative repercussions of addictive behavior, there are also sporadic reports of online addiction causing relationship and childcare problems, which means that other people besides the addicted individual are also affected by the Internet addiction of a loved one.

Recent studies have attempted to define the neurological correlates of online addiction. A study from Germany assessed healthy volunteers using the Internet Addiction Test and compared the results to normal standards of brain volume and functional brain imaging. Participants who showed high levels of Internet addiction were found to have a smaller volume of grey matter of the right frontal pole than the normal controls. When it came to neural circuits, volunteers who had a high level of Internet addiction displayed higher connectivity between the right frontal pole and the left ventral striatum. The study authors postulated that this pattern of neural circuitry associated with Internet addiction correlates with a diminished ability for self-modulation, lessened aptitude for maintaining long-term goals, and easy distractibility. 

Another study in China also evaluated the functional brain imaging of healthy young adults. The results similarly identified decreased connectivity between the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the medial prefrontal cortex in those who scored high on the Internet Addiction Test, which the study authors explained as a neurological sign of decreased cognitive control. Cognitive control is related to easy distractibility, but a lack of cognitive control also suggests that individuals who are addicted to the Internet might create their own distractions, which goes beyond being unable to avoid being easily “drawn in” by distractions. 

Another study, this one from Hungary, specifically looked at the brain volume of healthy female habitual Internet users and found a decreased volume of grey matter in the orbitofrontal cortex and increased volume of grey matter of the bilateral putamen and the right nucleus accumbens, which the authors suggested is correlated with an alteration of the brain’s reward system. 

Overall, Internet addiction, which is less immediately harmful to the body than addictions to substances such as alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs, may generate some long-term changes to the brain. Thus far, Internet addiction has been considered a nuisance, and is often viewed as an almost comical condition. And the Internet is a useful resource of information and communication, as well as an indispensable tool in many educational systems and workplaces. Thus, because of our increasing dependence on the Internet, self-monitoring for addiction will likely become even more challenging in the future than it is now. The fundamental question is whether the tendency to fall into Internet overuse is a consequence of underlying brain anomalies or whether Internet overuse can actually produce brain anomalies.

Do you think Internet addiction is an issue that physicians should screen patients for?

 

References:

Altbacker A, et al. Problematic internet use is associated with structural alterations in the brain reward system in females. Brain Imaging Behav. 23 Sept 2015 [ePub ahead of print]

Li W, et al. Brain structures and functional connectivity associated with individual differences in Internet tendency in healthy young adults. Neuropsychologia. April 2015;70:134-144.

Kühn S, Gallinat J. Brains online: structural and functional correlates of habitual Internet use. Addiction Biol. March 2015;20(2):415-422.