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Smartphone Addiction Alters Brain Neurotransmitter Chemistry

By Medimaging International staff writers
Posted on 27 Dec 2017
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Image: A new study shows smartphone addiction causes an imbalance in the brain (Photo courtesy of Shutterstock).
Image: A new study shows smartphone addiction causes an imbalance in the brain (Photo courtesy of Shutterstock).
A new study suggests that teenagers addicted to digital technology may have an imbalance between the inhibitory neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate-glutamine (Glx).

Researchers at Korea University (Seoul) used magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) to gain insights into the brains of people believed to have a pattern of smartphone-internet technology addiction, based on a standardized questionnaire. The questions were designed to elucidate the extent that excessive screen time affects daily activities, face-to-face social connectedness, productivity, sleeping patterns, and feelings. The study cohort included 19 teenagers diagnosed with digital technology addiction and a control group of 19 gender- and age-matched teenagers.

A dozen addicted teenagers underwent nine weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) designed to reduce addictive behaviors; MRS brain imaging scans were conducted before and after CBT, with a single MRS analysis conducted on the non-addicted control group. MRS was used to measure levels of GABA, the chief inhibitory neurotransmitter, and Glx, which electrically stimulates neurons. The results showed GABA/Glx ratio was significantly increased in the anterior cingulate cortex of addicted youth, prior to CBT. The study was presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA), held during November 2017 in Chicago (IL, USA).

“Increased GABA levels and disrupted balance between GABA and glutamate in the anterior cingulate cortex may be related to the functional loss of integration and regulation of processing in the cognitive and emotional neural network,” said lead author and study presenter professor of neuroradiology Hyung Suk Seo, MD. “The good news for anyone who may be addicted to his or her smartphone is that after CBT, GABA to Glx ratios significantly decreased or normalized in the young adults diagnosed with Smartphone-Internet addiction.”

The glutamate-glutamine cycle maintains an adequate supply of the neurotransmitter glutamate in the central nervous system (CNS). Glutamate is also the precursor of GABA, converted automatically to maintain balance between the two. An excess of glutamate is a primary contributing factor to a wide variety of neurological disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease and Fibromyalgia, while insufficient levels of GABA play a vital role in alcoholism, drug addiction, and cravings for sugar and carbohydrates.

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