German researchers believe a specific genetic variant is linked to Internet addiction. The same genetic variation has been linked to other forms of addiction.
In the new study, researchers compared the genetic makeup of the problematic Internet users with that of healthy control individuals.
The comparison showed that individuals with obessive Internet tendencies are more often carriers of a genetic variation that also plays a major role in nicotine addiction.
“It was shown that Internet addiction is not a figment of our imagination,” said lead author, Christian Montag, Ph.D. “Researchers and therapists are increasingly closing in on it.”
For the study, University of Bonn researchers interviewed a total of 843 people about their Internet habits. Using specific guidelines, researchers determined that 132 men and women in this group (16 percent), exhibited problematic behavior in how they handle the online medium.
Behaviors include the admission that all their thoughts revolve around the Internet during the day; and a belief that their well-being is severely impacted if they have to go without access to the Internet.
The researchers found that the 132 subjects are more often carriers of a genetic variation that also plays a major role in nicotine addiction.
“What we already know about the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor in the brain is that a mutation on the related gene promotes addictive behavior,” Montag said.
Nicotine from tobacco fits — just like acetylcholine, which is produced by the body — like a key into this receptor. Both these neurotransmitters play a significant role in activating the brain’s reward system.
“It seems that this connection is not only essential for nicotine addiction, but also for Internet addiction,” the Bonn psychologist said.
The actual mutation is on the CHRNA4 gene that changes the genetic make¬up for the Alpha 4 subunit on the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor.
“Within the group of subjects exhibiting problematic Internet behavior this variant occurs more frequently — in particular, in women,” Montag said.
Researchers say this finding is in contrast to earlier surveys that found men are more prone to Internet addiction than women. Montag believes the results “may result from a specific subgroup of Internet dependency, such as the use of social networks or such.”
Montag also adds that additional larger scale studies are required to further analyze the connection between this mutation and Internet addiction.
“But the current data already shows that there are clear indications for genetic causes of Internet addiction,” he said.
Montag believes confirmation of the biological marker linked to Internet addiction will improve diagnosis and characterization of the addiction and lead to the development of therapies.
Source: University of Bonn