Brain irregularities found in young Internet addicts

How often have you logged into a computer to check Moodle and moments later found yourself on Facebook without remembering how you got there?

In an age when virtually any information is only a click away, experts are beginning to explore reasons behind compulsive Internet usage.

A recent study from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Wuhan found structural irregularities in the brains of adolescent Internet addicts.

The research group, led by Dr. Hao Lei, performed specialized MRI brain scans on 35 men and women between the ages of 14 and 24, according to BBC.

Seventeen of these individuals had been identified as having Internet Addiction Disorder, which is “characterized by an individual’s inability to control his or her use of the Internet,” according to the published study in PLoS ONE. The diagnoses were based on the answers to a series of yes or no questions pertaining to the impact of the Internet on the individual’s everyday life.

Those who had been diagnosed with IAD showed disruptions in the white matter of the brain, which contains nerve fibers. The disconnected nerve fibers are localized in areas of the brain linked to emotions, decision-making and self-control, according to BBC. The subjects who were not diagnosed with IAD did not display such disruptions.

“One of the side effects (of addiction) may be that you might choose not to eat because the addiction is what’s feeding you,” said Ernest McCoy, part-time counselor at Guilford. “You may not seek human interaction as frequently as you once did, your sleep habits might change and you may become disinterested in other activities.”

These same fiber disconnections have also been found in the brains of cocaine addicts, alcoholics and gambling addicts, suggesting that Internet addiction may interact with the brain in a similar manner as other established substance or behavioral addictions.

Though additional studies will be needed to confirm these findings, this discovery “could lead to new treatments for addictive behavior,” reported BBC.

Existing treatment for behavioral addiction may include “intensive outpatient therapy and participating in cognitive behavioral therapy,” said McCoy.

“You really have to work toward a change in lifestyle,” said McCoy. “You had to change your lifestyle to maintain the addiction, so you have to change your lifestyle to maintain sobriety.”

Because of the newness of this illness, however, there is no widely accepted model for treating Internet addiction.

The last Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders was published in 1994, “when the Internet was still in its infancy,” said Chris Henry, assistant professor of psychology, in an email interview. As such, the current DSM does not contain any information about Internet addiction.

“But its next edition is scheduled for a 2013 release, and the possible inclusion of something like an ‘Internet addiction disorder’ has been hotly debated for the last several years,” said Henry. “Some have debated that it represents a kind of impulse-control disorder and should be recognized as such, while others argue that, while clearly problematic for some individuals, it is not widespread or serious enough to warrant inclusion in the DSM.”

While the future classification and treatment of Internet addiction remains uncertain, know this: in the two minutes it took to read this article, a million new Facebook comments were born.