Latest developments in causes and treatments



The Brain Scans of Adolescents Show Damage Caused by Internet Addiction

Two brain science researchers at University College London have just released a systematic review of imaging studies of adolescents with internet addiction. First, the researchers narrowed down the areas of research to the impact of internet addiction on three capabilities:

  • alterations of functional connectivity at various brain regions
  • specific functional connectivity relationships
  • behavioral/developmental changes

The researchers predicted, and the research supported, that fMRI scans would be “regionally similar to substance-use [disorders] and gambling addiction.” Researchers examined the scans of adolescents with internet addiction with a focus on the default mode network, the executive control network, the salience network, and the reward network. While much of the data on individual networks was ambiguous, the overall effect on all these networks together was profound:

Overall, the functional connectivity changes within adolescents with internet addiction are very much network specific and lay a solid foundation from which to understand the subsequent behaviour changes that arise from the disorder…Studies confirm the influence of all these neural networks on reward valuation, impulsivity, salience to stimuli, cue reactivity and other changes that alter behaviour towards the internet use. Many of these changes are connected to the inherent nature of the adolescent brain.

Here’s a fairly straightforward summary of the new research from Neuroscience News:

In all of the reviewed studies, when teenagers with internet addiction engaged in activities governed by the brain’s executive control network (e.g. behaviors requiring attention, planning, decision-making, and especially impulsivity), those brain regions showed a significant disruption in their ability to work together compared to those in individuals of the same age without internet addiction.

While the disruption to brain function of adolescents with internet addiction may be reflected most in the interaction between these brain networks, it is precisely these brain networks that are undergoing rapid development during adolescence. The researchers report:

Important weaknesses of the adolescent brain that may explain the neurobiological change brought on by external stimuli are illustrated by features like the functional gaps between networks and the inadequate segregation of networks.

The researchers say that “the observed changes in functional connectivity have the capacity of influencing several aspects of adolescent development,” including such things as response inhibition and reward valuation. The researchers come to a startling conclusion about internet addiction: “The accumulated findings only paint an emerging pattern which aligns with similar substance-use and gambling disorders.”

There it is: the unity of addictions. The researchers say one treatment implication is the potential to use bupropion to treat internet addiction. Bupropion is a drug commonly used to treat nicotine addiction, depression, and gambling addiction. The researchers also recommend more directed cognitive behavioral therapy, family therapy, and parental training upon the diagnosis of internet addiction.

Written by Steve O’Keefe. First published June 10, 2024.


“Functional connectivity changes in the brain of adolescents with internet addiction: A systematic literature review of imaging studies,” PLOS Mental Health, June 4, 2024.

“Internet Addiction Disrupts Adolescent Brain Networks,” Neuroscience News, June 4, 2024.

Image courtesy NIH, used under public domain.


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