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Scientists describe the mechanism of neurological and behavioural problems caused by internet overuse; suggest diagnostic and therapeutic approaches

Etiologically Elusive Disorders Research Network (EEDRN),
New Delhi India

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A unique research network of medical doctors, neurobiologists, and basic scientists (Etiologically Elusive Disorders Research Network-EEDRN) affiliated to premier medical research institutes from India have explained the mechanism of disorders in brain and behaviour arising due to internet overuse. Based on the mechanism they deciphered, they have also suggested plausible therapeutic approaches. Their research analysis has been published in a reputed international peer reviewed journal ‘Current Psychiatry Reviews’.

Is internet overuse similar to drug addiction? EEDRN – an umbrella body of the doctors and neuroscientists from reputed medical/research institutes of India including All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi, National Brain Research Centre (NBRC), Haryana, and Ambedkar Centre for Biomedical Research (ACBR), Delhi has given an affirmative answer to this question. According to the paper published by this network, internet overuse indeed has addictive influences, and its accumulating effects may lead to stress manifesting as neurocognitive dysfunction. The gist of their research – based on empirical analysis of peer reviewed literature- explains the representative signs and symptoms, brain regions involved and plausible mechanism of consequent neurocognitive dysfunctions due to internet overuse. These scientists have provided a provisional list of Do’s and Don’ts as therapeutic measures in lieu of the absence of any institutional guidelines regarding the health problems arising from internet overuse.

Internet overuse has risen to epidemic proportions and a majority of people are now spending a lot of time online – seeking sensible information and responding to updates and feedbacks. The neural networks of brain assigned to cognitive functions, get constantly irritated by incoming information and evoke mental reactions. The individual, as a result, becomes vulnerable to many neuropsychiatric dysfunctions viz. irritation, anxiety, obsessive compulsion, indecisiveness, impulsivity, and loss of working memory. Growing body of the research suggests that internet overuse has a significant impact on personal and social relations, socio-political environment, and mental and general health of the users.  According to the lead investigators of this research Dr. Ashutosh Kumar and Dr. Muneeb Faiq, the brain is a perpetually information seeking organ and any ceaseless expectation of seemingly rewarding information provided by internet, especially social networking sites, hijacks the reward system of the brain thereby inducing a compulsive internet overuse and a liking for staying constantly online. Dr Muneeb Faiq, a renowned clinical neurobiologist and corresponding author of the article along with Dr Khursheed Raza and Dr Ashutosh Kumar, a leading scientist at EEDRN, highlighted the collective impact of internet overuse related health problems at the population level. They expressed the apprehension that the problem goes beyond geographical boundaries and, if ignored, may mushroom as a ‘Disease of Human Civilization’. Vikas Pareek, a senior PhD scholar and co-author of the article said “internet overuse pathology implicates key brain regions involved in cognitive regulation such as prefrontal cortex decision making, the hippocampus – memory and basal ganglia or striatum – habit formation based on reward. It means internet overuse may have serious effects on learning and social communication in growing up children and teenagers whose brain wiring is still maturing.

Dr Faiq further explained the brain pathogenesis involved in the compulsive use of the internet to the elemental unit of neurons – the synapses – where information is processed – presenting an overt assumption that an overload of information may have toxic effects on the synaptic processing caused by dysregulation of neurotransmitters and synaptic proteins. Such a mechanism may lead to aggressiveness and impulsivity, hampered decision making and forgetfulness. He further added that robustly designed animal model studies will be required to substantiate this assumption but the improbability of translating a purely human specific problem in animal model studies may present a technical challenge.

Sada Nand Pandey, a PhD scholar and co-author of the study, mentioned the influence of internet overuse on eating and sleeping habits, predisposing an individual to common metabolic and functional disorders. He emphasized that the internet over users prefer food items and beverages that provide instant energy leading to related health issues. Their sleep is less and intermittent, thereby, hastening the neurocognitive dysfunction.   

Dr Khursheed Raza, Dr Pavan and Sankat Mochan said “When this disease predisposition and neuropsychiatric dysfunction is viewed in terms of the percentage of people involved in internet overuse, the problem becomes serious. Therefore, medical fraternity needs to identify the impact before such diseases are reported in epidemic form.” The authors collectively stressed that complete lack of any authorised diagnostic and therapeutic protocols for internet overuse related health problems either gives rise to neglect or exaggeration. This leads to vague therapeutic suggestions. Hence the issue should be recognized by policy makers and standardization of the diagnostic and therapeutic approaches should come in effect.  

It is pertinent to mention that internet overuse related mental health problems are still in wait for proper recognition by Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) – the highest institutional body for recognition of mental disorders. This is despite the fact that some aspects of the internet overuse (like internet gaming disorder and pornography) have been considered by DSM-5. Internet overuse for general reasons – as in seeking personal and social information, and social media networking – is still to be recognized. The authors believe that the unrecognized effects of internet overuse have wider health impact when considered at a population level.

Journal reference: Current Psychiatry Reviews, Bentham Science Publishers; http://www.currentpsychiatryreviews.com/index.php


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