Brain Abnormalities Linked With Compulsive Internet Use

May 13, 2014

NEW YORK—Internet addiction is associated with a number of abnormalities in the brain, according to a literature review of more than a dozen studies that focused on brain imaging of compulsive Internet users. 

Sree Latha Krishna Jadapalle, MD, psychiatry resident at MoreHouse School Of Medicine, Atlanta, reported her findings in a poster at the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting. 

While Internet addiction was not included in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), Internet gaming disorder was listed in the appendix as a disorder warranting further investigation, Dr. Jadapalle explained. Internet addiction is characterized by an inability to control use of the Internet that can result in impaired social interaction, academic performance, and behavior—and eventual distress. The disorder has a “significant correlation” with mental health problems such as depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and eating disorders, Dr. Jadapelle explained during a press conference. 

Dr. Jadapelle conducted a review of neuroimaging studies published between 2009 and 2013 that focused on people with Internet addiction—13 articles were included in the study, and results indicated that people with Internet addiction disorder have brain abnormalities associated with the addiction. 

Brain images revealed structural changes, changes in both grey matter and white matter, altered distribution of cerebral blood flow, and reduced orbitofrontal cortical thickness among people who compulsively use the Internet, especially for online gaming, she reported. 

In addition, people with Internet addiction may experience dysfunction in dopaminergic brain systems, similar to people with substance dependence and other addictions, Dr. Jadapalle added. 

Up to 26% of adolescents in the United States are suspected of Internet overuse. “This is huge. It’s actually more than alcohol and illicit drug use prevalence in American youth,” she said. 

Dr. Jadapalle conducted her review to better understand the structural and functional changes in the brain that could affect users’ emotional processing, cognitive control, and decision-making. The findings prompt her to recommend large-scale brain imaging studies that include at-risk youth and adolescent population, with the ultimate goal of developing evidence-based diagnostic criteria. 

 —Jolynn Tumolo 

Reference

“Internet Addiction. Review of Neuroimaging Studies.” Abstract presented at the American Psychiatric Association Meeting. May 6, 2014.