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Being addicted to smartphones can create chemical changes in the brain, which may be linked to depression and anxiety in young people, a study suggests.

Scientists at Korea University found that teenagers who obsessively used their mobile devices scored higher on standardized tests that detect mental disorders. The test measured how much internet and smartphone use affected daily routines, social life, productivity, sleeping patterns and feelings.

The team documented the levels of gamma aminobutyric acid (Gaba), a chemical messenger in the brain that slows down brain signals, and of glutamate-glutamine (Glx) a neurotransmitter that causes the brain’s nerve cells to become excited.

The experiment involved 38 young people with an average age of 15.5, half of whom were diagnosed with internet or smartphone addiction, while the rest formed a healthy control group.

Out of the 19 teenagers addicted to smartphones, 12 were receiving cognitive behavioral therapy to treat addiction, as part of the study.

The results showed teenagers with smartphone addiction have higher ratios of Gaba-to-Glx in the part of the brain known as the anterior cingulate cortex, prior to therapy, as compared to the healthy control group. The anterior cingulate cortex is the region which involves executive function, cognitive process, and emotional regulation.

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The lead author of the study, Hyung Suk Seo, a professor of neuroradiology at Korea University, said this ratio correlates to depression and anxiety. The study also found that Gaba-to-Glx ratios decreased after cognitive therapy.

“The increased Gaba levels, and disrupted balance between Gaba and glutamate in the anterior cingulate cortex, may contribute to our understanding of the pathophysiology of -and treatment for- addictions,” Dr Seo said.

The team also found that addicted teens had “significantly higher scores of depression, anxiety, insomnia severity and impulsivity.”

“The higher the score, the more severe the addiction,” Dr Seo concluded.

The team from Korea University, in Seoul, took 3D images of participants’ brains using magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS), to measure their brain chemical composition. MRS is a non-invasive diagnostic test often used to detect the presence of tumors. It works by comparing the chemical composition of normal brain tissue with abnormal brain tissue.

The scientists say further research is needed to understand the clinical implications of their findings but add that high levels of Gaba in the brain could be related to “functional loss’ in certain areas of the brain.

A recent study found 46 percent of Americans stay they could not live without their smartphone, according to a Pew Research Center study.

Scientists are increasingly looking at disruptions in the glutamate/Gaba-glutamine cycle because of a variety of neurological disorders and conditions such as epilepsy, Alzheimer’s and autism.

The researchers presented their findings at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America a few weeks ago.