Can Internet Gaming Disorder Alter the Brain’s Structure?

Posted on November 17th, 2014

Internet gaming disorder is the term used in the U.S. to describe an unofficially defined form of behavioral addiction centered on dysfunctional, impairing involvement in games played remotely through computers or other online devices. The American Psychiatric Association has created a list of possible symptoms of this disorder, which researchers throughout the world are currently testing in various types of studies. In a study published in September 2014 in the journal Addictive Behaviors, a team of Chinese researchers used advanced imaging technology to help determine if people potentially affected by Internet gaming disorder experience structural changes in their brains’ grey and white matter.

Internet Gaming Disorder

The American Psychiatric Association or APA (a professional organization that traditionally produces the standard definitions for mental health conditions in the U.S.) first fully acknowledged the existence of non-substance-based addictions in 2013. Many experts in the field refer to this form of addiction as behavioral addiction or, less commonly, as process addiction. The APA uses the term addictive disorders and includes these disorders in the same larger diagnostic category that also includes all types of substance addiction.

As of September 2014, the American Psychiatric Association has not included Internet gaming disorder on the list of defined addictive disorders. In fact, the current list includes just one condition: gambling disorder. However, the organization has proposed nine possible symptoms of the condition and officially encourages researchers to test the usefulness and specificity of these symptoms. The nine proposed symptoms include an increasing need to play Internet games, a repeatedly demonstrated inability to limit Internet game participation, steeply diminished involvement in other types of recreational or essential activities, loss of friendships or other social relationships as a result of excessive Internet use and continued involvement in excessive Internet gaming after exposure to relationship loss or other clearly damaging outcomes.

White and Grey Brain Matter

White and grey matter are the two basic forms of tissue that make up the human brain. The names of the two tissue types are based on their respective colors. Grey matter primarily includes the nerve cells responsible for producing the electrical/chemical signals that give the brain its basic ability to function and control the body’s mental and physical processes. Conversely, white matter primarily includes the large range of supporting cells that help grey matter do its job. All healthy, adult human brains have roughly similar amounts of grey matter, as well as roughly similar amounts of white matter.

Impact of Internet Gaming Addiction

In the study published in Addictive Behaviors, researchers from China’s Zhejiang Normal University and East China Normal University used MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans taken from 71 young adults to look for signs of abnormal structural change in the brains of people seemingly affected by Internet gaming disorder (the researchers use the term Internet gaming addiction). Thirty-five of these study participants had symptoms that indicated the presence of an addiction to Internet gaming; the remaining 36 participants were not affected by Internet gaming-related problems. The researchers used the MRI scans from the people in both groups to compare the amounts of grey matter and white matter contained in various brain areas.

After completing their analysis, the researchers concluded that the study participants tentatively diagnosed with Internet gaming addiction had unusually low amounts of grey matter in several brain areas when compared to their age counterparts unaffected by gaming addiction. The researchers also concluded that the participants tentatively diagnosed with Internet gaming addiction had unusually low amounts of white matter in some of the same brain areas, as well as in different brain areas. Critically, the affected areas help control executive function, a collective set of higher-level mental abilities that help adults do such things as control their behaviors, keep mood fluctuations in check, think logically and make situation-appropriate decisions.

Since Internet gaming disorder does not currently have a standard, official definition, no one can really say for sure if the brain structure alterations found by the study’s authors are significant for the diagnosis of behavioral addiction-related Internet gaming behavior. However, the observed structural alterations may indeed resemble the types of brain changes that other researchers have uncovered while identifying the underlying reasons for the onset of behavioral addiction. If so, then there may be further support for the official inclusion of Internet gaming disorder in future diagnostic guidelines issued by the American Psychiatric Association.

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