A new study has shown that spending too much time on the Internet can have disruptive effects on the brain's nerve wiring, similar to alcohol, cocaine and cannabis.
The study, led by a team of Chinese researchers, compared the brain scans of young people suffering from the Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) with their non-addict peers and found that the Internet can considerably damage a brain's white matter - the part that contains nerve fibers -and affect an individual's emotional and decision making abilities.
Findings from the study indicated that white matter abnormalities in the brain's orbito-frontal cortex and its impact on certain brain activities are not only induced by substances but also due to behavioral activities such as Internet or video gaming.
Previous studies have shown abnormal white matter structure in those who are exposed to alcohol, cocaine, cannabis, methamphetamine and ketamine.
Internet addiction has been often debated as a "psychological disorder," severe enough to disrupt an individual's daily activities due to excessive and almost compulsive use of the Internet.
As compulsion does not necessarily imply addictive behavior, the research team, led by Dr Hao Lei from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Wuhan, had to first identify 17 young men and women from a group of 35, who have repeatedly made unsuccessful efforts to control their Internet use.
About 5 to 10 percent of the Internet users are known to suffer from Internet addiction. When they are denied access to the Internet, they experience withdrawal symptoms - including obsessive thoughts, shivers, and involuntary typing movements of the fingers.
The study, which was published in PLoS ONE, used a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) technique that showed significant damage to white matter fibers connecting brain regions in teenagers who are hooked to the Internet. It also found low levels of Fractional Anisotropy (FA) - a measurement of water diffusion in heavy Internet users, indicating poor structure of their nerve fibers.
"Our findings suggest that IAD demonstrated widespread reductions of FA in major white matter pathways and such abnormal white matter structure may be linked to some behavioral impairment." said the study's lead author Dr Hao Lei.
The scientists suspect the damage is caused by disrupted myelin, the fatty insulating sheath that coats nerve fibers and helps them function.
However, since the study covered only a small number of participants, future researches involving much larger groups of people are required to concur to the assumptions that Internet addiction actually damages the brain.
Commenting on the findings, Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones, consultant psychiatrist at Imperial College London, said that the findings from the study was "groundbreaking" as it clarified the neuro-imaging links between Internet addiction and other addictions such as alcohol, cocaine and cannabis amongst others.
Currently, Internet addiction is treated as an "impulse control disorder" rather than a "genuine" addiction and further studies involving larger numbers of subjects would be needed before reclassifying it, Dr Bowden-Jones added.