In a 2014 Addictive Disorders study, a team of South Korean and American researchers compared the brain effects of alcoholism to the changes found in people with Internet gaming disorders. They concluded that, even though both conditions can interfere with a critical mental skill called executive function, they largely produce different patterns of brain alteration.
Alcoholism and alcohol abuse
Alcoholism is a chronic disease characterized by persistent changes in brain function brought about by the repeated intake of excessive amounts of alcohol and the subsequent development of alcohol dependence.
Many of the dysfunctional behavioral changes found in people affected by this condition also appear in habitual alcohol abusers who don’t have a dependence on continued alcohol intake. Since this fact largely blurs any logical distinctions between alcoholism and alcohol abuse, guidelines established in 2013 by the American Psychiatric Association group both forms of illness together under the alcohol use disorder heading.
Internet gaming disorder
Researchers from around the world have noted that some people develop clearly dysfunctional patterns of behavior centered on excessive use of the Internet in general and excessive participation in online gaming in particular. Much of the work in this area comes from South Korea, a heavily internet-adapted country with high levels of online gaming participation in certain segments of the population.
Some researchers believe that at least some people qualify for a diagnosis of behavioral addiction, a form of addiction that triggers many of the changes in brain function and behavior once thought to occur only in substance addicts.
In the U.S., problematic internet use is not officially defined as a behavioral addiction. However, in 2013, the American Psychiatric Association issued a proposed list of symptoms for internet gaming disorder and asked researchers to conduct experiments designed to test the accuracy and validity of these symptoms in various population groups.
Executive function is the accepted term for a collection of abilities that give adults an advanced degree of control over their thought processes and real-world behaviors. Specific abilities that fall under the executive function heading include the ability to compare current experiences to past experiences, the ability to change behaviors when appropriate, the ability to follow a logical decision-making process, the ability to rein in impulsive urges, the ability to make plans and the ability to make choices that bring previously created plans to their successful conclusion.
Similarities and differences in brain changes
In the Addictive Behaviors study, researchers from the University of Utah, Harvard Medical School and South Korea’s Chung Ang University Hospital and Seoul National Hospital used modern imaging procedures to compare the brain connections in 16 people diagnosed with alcoholism to the brain connections in 15 people who met the proposed criteria for internet gaming disorder.
They undertook this work, in part, because previous studies have indicated that two specific problems with executive function — reduced control over impulsive behavior and a poor ability to adapt to changing circumstances — can appear in people affected by either condition.
After completing their comparisons, the researchers concluded that some of the changes in brain function found in people affected by alcoholism (specifically, certain patterns of communication between key brain areas) also appear in people affected by the proposed symptoms of internet gaming disorder.
However, they also concluded that other functional changes in the brains of people with alcoholism differ in important ways from the functional changes in the brains of people apparently impacted by dysfunctional internet gaming involvement.
The researchers identified three factors that may account for these differences in brain alteration: the typically younger age of people with internet gaming problems, the specific mental health problems that commonly also appear in people with internet gaming problems and the heavily vision-based and sound-based sensory stimulation that largely defines internet gaming participation.
Further work will be needed before any research team can make additional meaningful comparisons between the substance-based phenomenon of alcoholism and behavior-based problematic Internet gaming involvement.