The brains of Internet addicts may undergo chemical changes similar to those of alcoholics and other drug addicts, according to a new study published in Plos One, a journal of the Public Library of Science.
Researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Wuhan scanned the brains of 35 men and woman between the ages of 14 and 21, about half of whom were identified in a diagnostic evaluation as having Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD), in order to see how the brains of addicts differ from those of non-addicts, the BBC explained.
Researchers found there was a difference between the two groups and that it occurred in the part of the brain linked to emotional processing, executive thinking skills and cognitive functioning.
In Internet addicts, this part of the brain experienced abnormal connections between nerve fibers, a similar phenomenon observed in the brains of people with alcoholism and other impulse control disorders.
The BBC interviewed Dr. Henrietta Bowden-Jones, a senior lecturer at Imperial College London, about the significance of the study.
"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 told the BBC.
Researchers have long argued over whether types of technology addiction -- such as addiction to the Internet or to video games -- should be officially classified as a mental illness.
In 2007, researchers studying video game addiction made a proposal to the American Psychiatric Association for it to be included in the American Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders, a standard manual used by doctors in diagnosing mental illness, Reuters reported.
After consulting with a number of addiction experts, however, the APA turned the proposal down on doctors' advice that more evidence was needed.
"There is nothing here to suggest that this is a complex physiological disease state akin to alcoholism or other substance abuse disorders, and it doesn't get to have the word addiction attached to it," Dr. Stuart Gitlow of the American Society of Addiction Medicine and Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York, who consulted the APA on the ruling, said at the time.
The Chinese study should provide hope for those who believe addiction to technology should be recognized as a mental illness, especially for the increasing number of people in recent years whose friends or family members have died as a result of their struggle with gaming addiction.
In July of 2011, the Daily Mail reported on the death of 20-year-old videogame enthusiast Chris Staniforth, who died from a blood clot doctors believe developed because he was spending 12 hours a day playing video games.
In a similar case in 2008, a 21-year-old man from Inchon, South Korea, was found dead in his home two months after he developed a gaming addiction so severe he would rarely sleep or leave his room, according to The Daily Beast. Despite experiencing difficulty breathing, the man refused to go to the doctor and continued to play video games.
As part of an effort to curtail gaming addiction among young people, South Korea lawmakers passed a gaming "Shutdown Law," effective as of November 2011, which requires gaming websites to shut out players under 16 during a 6-hour block at night, Gamasutra reported.