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Study claims smartphone addiction can alter the brain

Here's how you can tell if you're affected

Photo (c) PeopleImages - Getty Images
An international study presented at suggests being addicted to a smartphone can create a chemical imbalance in the brain.

To assemble the subjects, the researchers used standard tests to measure the extent of attachment to and dependence upon a mobile device. Dr. Hyung Suk Seo, professor of neuroradiology at Korea University in Seoul, identified a small group of young people as being "addicted" to their smartphones. 

He and his team then used magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) to measure their brains’ chemical composition.They found that, compared to healthy control subjects, smartphone-dependent subjects showed higher ratios of gamma aminobutryic acid (GABA) to glutamate-glutamine (Glx).

GABA is a neurotransmitter that slows brain signals, while Glx increases neuron activity.

"The increased GABA levels and disrupted balance between GABA and glutamate in the anterior cingulate cortex may contribute to our understanding the pathophysiology of and treatment for addictions," Dr. Seo said in a release.

Moreover, Dr. Seo expressed concern for the clinical implications this imbalance could have on young people’s anxiety and depression. More research is needed, but the team’s smartphone-dependent subjects showed marked improvement following cognitive behavioral therapy.

Designed to be addictive?

Adam Alter is author of the book about smartphone addiction, "Irresistible." On the NRR Program "Fresh Air" in March, Alter said technology is designed to be addictive.

"If I'm addicted to, say, World of Warcraft, the minute I start firing up the game ... my brain will look [in a scan] very much like the brain of someone who's addicted to heroin and is preparing the next hit," he told interviewer Dave Davies.

Management consultant Simon Sinek agrees that certain technology is addictive. But the most addictive technology, he says, is the one that connects people.

"We know that engagement with social media and our cellphones releases a chemical called dopamine," Sinek says in a video interview that has gone viral on YouTube. "That's why when you get a text, it feels good. Dopamine is the same chemical that makes us feel good when we smoke, when we drink, and when we gamble."


Science has even come up with a name for smartphone addition -- nomophobia, an abbreviation of “no mobile phobia”. And it's not a recent discovery.

As early as 2012, 84 percent of consumers in a Time magazine poll said they couldn't go a single day without their mobile phones. One in four told survey-takers they check their phones at least every 30 minutes.

But experts say that, in itself, may not signal addition. A sales person constantly using a phone to check email from clients and stay in touch with the office may only be maximizing an important tool, which is different from someone checking Instagram every 30 minutes.

Psychologists have developed a number of tests designed to reveal smartphone addiction. Tell-tale indicators include the number of times a person checks his or her phone during a given period, whether a phone interferes with relationships with family and friends, and sleeping with the device.

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