Internet Users Lose Brain Function/ Cognitive Control

By John Giordano PhD. (hon.) MAC, Certified Criminal Justice Specialist

Internet addiction

Last month I had the distinguished honor of being a keynote speaker at the 1st International Conference on Behavioral Addictions held in Budapest, Hungary. The foremost authorities on addiction and its treatment came from every corner of the earth to freely share their knowledge and experiences. The conference was all that I had hope for and much more. But what did come as a bit of a surprise was the magnitude of process addictions in the world today.

Process addictions have become interwoven into the fabric of our society. You can’t walk through the checkout at a grocery store without seeing a bulimic, anorexic or binging movie stars’ picture splattered across the covers of the tabloids. Not long ago I was in an elevator with a man madly tapping the tiny keys on his cell phone completely oblivious to the world around him.

Sex, bulimia, anorexia, overeating, gambling, internet and other process addictions are beyond obsessive, compulsive and impulsive behaviors that become a danger to an individual and/or the people around them. They have been growing unnoticed in the shadows of their big brother, substance abuse. These addictive behaviors were once thought to be minor addictions compared to drug and alcohol abuse. Yet new scientific evidence is now emerging suggesting internet addiction among other process addictions has a similar effect on behavior and is just as damaging to the brain as drugs including cocaine.

Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) is so new and expanding that research scientists and doctors are scrambling to establish parameters and an accurate definition of the disorder. Currently, the broad interpretation of IAD is the extended excessive use/interaction of content accessible by computer, cell phone or game platform to the extent that interferes with normal daily life. It is important to note that it is not the internet itself or a computer that is of issue, but rather the content that the hardware can access and provide an individual. However the lack of structure has not hampered efforts of scientists to research the disorder.

To better understand IAD it is important you have a basic understanding of what makes us feel comfortable and at ease. We all get pleasure and reward from basic everyday experiences. Some days it might be a beautiful morning, others might feel good wearing a  new outfit. However, not everyone feels as much pleasure and/or reward as others. In fact, some people can feel downright edgy and uncomfortable day in and day out. My good friend and colleague Dr. Kenneth Blum – who discovered the addiction/alcohol gene – describes the condition as, Reward Deficiency Syndrome or RDS.

According to Dr. Blum, the culprit is a brain chemical called dopamine – the primary neurotransmitter or reward and pleasure. This is the brain chemical that communicates to the rest of the brain that all is well and good. It gives us the sense of ease and comfort. It’s what puts a smile on our face and resonance in our laughter. When Dopamine is not fully processed in the brain, the message of well and good gets garbled, much like what you’d hear when you’re talking to a friend on a cell phone driving through a dead zone. As a consequence, the rest of the brain that gets the scrambled and incomplete ‘feel good’ message shifts gears into an edgy, uncomfortable mode. From Dr. Blum’s website: http://www.rdsyndrome.com “When levels of these ‘feel good’ chemicals are low or blocked from the brain’s receptors; stress, pain, discomfort and agitation are the result. This condition is called “Reward Deficiency Syndrome” (RDS).”

The human brain is an incredible mechanism in the respect that – like a magnetic compass always pointing north – it is always trying to move the needle to normal and balanced. Instinctively, our brain’s diagnostics recognizes the failed ‘feel good’ communication due to damaged or congested avenues of message transmission. It then immediately sets out to correct the situation through behaviors and/or substances that can stimulate additional Dopamine production.

It has been theorized that some of our ancestors who roamed the earth thousands of years-ago may have first been attracted to sweet fruits and berries because of their natural ability to increase Dopamine production. Today the fruits and berries have been replaced with donuts, pastas, breads, candies, cakes, alcohol and other foods and drinks that metabolize into sugar, thus having the same effect in the brain, increasing Dopamine production. A person suffering from RDS might also engage in dangerous activities such as skydiving, bungee jumping, extreme sports, swimming with sharks, unprotected sex with multiple partners, gambling and a host of other behaviors as a way to achieve the same, increased production of Dopamine. For most of these people who suffer from RDS and the many that have a genetic predisposition to addiction, the actions they take and the substances they abuse are more often to experience – albeit temporary – a sense of normalcy rather than to get high.

So, when you’re sitting on the edge of your seat navigating the virtual dangers in life-like hi-tech graphics glaring at you from your hi-res screen while you’re punching the living daylights out of a game controller firmly embedded in your sweaty palms, what do you think is going on between your ears? If you guessed increased Dopamine production you’d be right. But there is far more to it.

People log on to the virtual world for a variety of reasons from work to entertainment. Those who sign-in for enjoyment and escape seem to be the one most likely to engage in online activities over longer periods of time. And this is where the problem begins.

The science of Internet Addiction Disorder is so new that that we don’t have volumes of research at our disposal. However, early indications are that the virtual world offers a plethora of instant gratification mechanisms often associated with Dopamine spiking.

One doesn’t need to be a neuroscientist to see the effects gaming has on its players. Just watch a young adult or child play a video game. Their eyes get wide and their actions become animated. You’ll hear their oohs and aahs as they traverse the virtual dangers woven into the challenges the game presents. It all seems pretty harmless, that is until you look at their MRI.

Research is now emerging that, for the first time, it shows the physical brain damage digital games have on gamers who play for long extended periods of time. I found one study in particular, published in the Jan. 11 issue of the pear reviewed journal; PLoS One, to be a real eye-opener. The scientists compared the MRIs of young men and woman who were excessive gamers and diagnosed as having IAD to the scans of their peers, healthy young adults of the same age who weren’t addicted to the web. In comparing the scans of the two groups, the scientists discovered more patterns of ‘abnormal white matter’ on brain scans of Internet addicts as compared to the non Internet addicts’ scans.

This is significant because white matter makes up 60 percent of the total brain volume. But equally as important, white matter contains nerve fibers that transmit signals between regions of the brain. One could easily make the analogy of the nerve fibers being the cable that connects to your TV. When the cable is damaged or cut completely, the image on your TV is going to be fuzzy or a completely dark screen respectively.

The exact same thing occurs in the brains of Internet Addicts! Every tap on the game controller contributes in a small way to messages between brain regions going fuzzy or missed completely. IAD literally changes brain anatomy. It alters its physical make-up. The results of this study clearly shows the interruption of white matter fibers connecting brain regions involved in emotional processing, attention, decision making and cognitive control.

The researchers went on to state in the study: “The results also suggest that IAD may share psychological and neural mechanisms with other types of substance addiction and impulse control disorders.” They said earlier studies found similar white matter changes in the brain scans of people addicted to alcohol, cocaine, heroin, marijuana and meth.

Dr. Henrietta Bowden Jones, consultant psychiatrist at Imperial College in London, who runs the U.K.’s only clinic for Internet addicts, told The Independent Newspaper “The majority of people we see with serious Internet addiction are gamers – people who spend long hours in roles in various games that cause them to disregard their obligations. I have seen people who stopped attending university lectures, failed their degrees or their marriages broke down because they were unable to emotionally connect with anything outside the game.”

The consensus among the world’s leading experts on addiction that I’d met at the 1st International Conference on Behavioral Addictions in Budapest, Hungary last month was that Internet Addiction Disorder is far more dangerous that previously thought. Much of the conversation revolved around the impact of digital devices on young developing brains. No one has a crystal ball, but the prognosis from these experts – although varied– was far from encouraging. One suggestion all agreed upon was parents limiting the time their children spend gaming or online.

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to call me directly at 305- 945-8384. Also check out my website: www.holisticaddictioninfo.com

John Giordano is a counselor, President and Founder of G & G Holistic Addiction Treatment Center in North Miami Beach and Chaplain of the North Miami Police Department.