Researchers in China find internet addicts have brain changes similar to those with drug or alcohol problems.

A research team led by Hao Lei of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Wuhan did brain scans on 35 men and women between 14 and 21 years old, about half of whom were classed as having internet addiction disorder (IAD).

Compared with non-addicts, those with IAD showed changes in the white matter of the brain — the part that contains nerve fibers — and there was evidence that connections in the fibers linking the brain areas involved in emotions, decision making, and self-control were disrupted as a result.

Lei and his colleagues write in the journal PLoS ONE, “Overall, our findings indicate that IAD has abnormal white matter integrity in brain regions involving emotional generation and processing, executive attention, decision making and cognitive control. The results also suggest that IAD may share psychological and neural mechanisms with other types of substance addiction and impulse control disorders.”

Dr. Henrietta Bowden-Jones, consultant psychiatrist and honorary senior lecturer at Imperial College London, told BBC News that while further studies with more people are needed to confirm the findings, the new research is “groundbreaking,” adding, “We are finally being told what clinicians suspected for some time now, that white matter abnormalities … are present not only in addictions where substances are involved but also in behavioral ones such as internet addiction.”