Published: Sat, December 02, 2017
Medicine | By Brett Sutton

Addicted to Your Phone? It Could Throw Off Your Brain Chemistry

Addicted to Your Phone? It Could Throw Off Your Brain Chemistry

Even though this is an exaggerated sentiment, the number of people becoming highly dependent on portable electronic devices like smartphones for news, information, games, and even the occasional phone call, are increasing.

Today's teens are spending too much time on their phones instead of interacting with others.

A team of Korean researchers led by Hyung Suk Seo, professor of neuroradiology at Korea University in Seoul, tried to gauze the effect on brain using magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) and measures the brain's chemical composition.

MRS scans are used to track concentrations of biochemicals in the brain, and are often used to study changes wrought by brain tumors, strokes, mood disorders and Alzheimer's disease.

The study involved 19 young people - with an average age of 15.5 years - who have been diagnosed with internet or smartphone addiction and 19 people of the same age and gender distribution. Additionally, 12 of the addicted participants were provided nine weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy that had been modified from a therapy program from gaming addiction.


Through standardized tests, multiple questions were put in front of the people to analyze how smartphone and internet affect their daily routine, sleeping patterns, social life, etc. These teenagers also had significantly higher scores in depression, anxiety, insomnia and impulsivity than the control group (the participants whose scores did not indicate internet addiction).

The researchers performed MRS exams on the addicted youth prior to and following behavioral therapy and a single MRS study on the control patients to measure levels of gamma aminobutyric acid, or GABA, a neurotransmitter in the brain that inhibits or slows down brain signals, and glutamate-glutamine (Glx), a neurotransmitter that causes neurons to become more electrically excited. In other studies, GABA has been shown to be involved in regulating certain brain functions including anxiety. It determined that the ratio of GABA to Glx in addicted teens was significantly higher before therapy than those recorded in the control subjects.

Due to the small sample size used in the study, Wintermark stressed that it's too early to say that the chemical imbalances observed in the teens' brains are linked to clinical problems such as anxiety and depression.

Elevated levels of GABA essentially have several side effects including anxiety and drowsiness.

As part of the study, the addicted youth were enrolled in cognitive behavioral therapy, which showed positive signs of normalizing the chemical imbalance, the researchers said.

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