A new Chinese study suggests that internet addiction alters the brain in similar ways to drugs or alcohol.
Credit: Justin Sullivan

Web addiction may change the brain similarly to drugs or alcohol, a new Chinese study finds. 

The research, which is published in this week's issue of science journal PLoS ONE, surveyed 17 Chinese men and women between the ages of 14 and 21 who were diagnosed with Internet addiction disorder (IAD), a clinical disorder marked by out-of-control internet usage. The researchers compared scans of their brains to scans of 16 healthy people who weren't addicted to the web. 

The MRI brain scans showed changes in the white matter of the brain, which contains nerve fibers. In those diagnosed with web addiction, there was evidence of disruption to connections in nerves linked to brain areas responsible for emotions, decision making, and self-control, BBC News reported.

"The results also suggest that IAD may share psychological and neural mechanisms with other types of substance addiction and impulse control disorders," Hao Lei, the lead researchers, and his colleagues wrote in the study. 

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Dr. Henrietta Bowden-Jones, a psychiatrist and honorary senior lecturer at Imperial College London, told the BBC that the research was "groundbreaking." 

"We are finally being told what clinicians suspected for some time now, that white matter abnormalities in the orbito-frontal cortex and other truly significant brain areas are present not only in addictions where substances are involved but also in behavioral ones such as internet addiction," Bowden Jones said. 

In addition to other criteria, it has been proposed that a diagnosis of internet addiction must include symptoms for at least 3 months and at least 6 hours of non-essential internet use per day, according to a recent study by the Society for the Study of addiction. Roughly 1 in 8 internet users show signs of "problematic internet use," according to TechAddiction.ca

Bowden-Jones told the BBC she thought more studies with larger numbers of subjects were needed to confirm the study's findings.

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