The finger movements we use to control our smartphones can actually change brain activity, according to a new Swiss study.
Researchers at the University of Zurich teamed with colleagues at the University of Fribourg to research the day-to-day plasticity of the human brain based on smartphone usage.
The phones provide a fertile source of data, said Dr. Arko Ghosh from the Institute of Neuroinformatics of the University of Zurich.
“Smartphones offer us an opportunity to understand how normal life shapes the brains of ordinary people,” he said.
The researchers studied the activation in the sensorimotor cortex, which is triggered by finger movements.
They used electroencephalography (EEG) to measure the cortical brain activity in 37 right-handed people, including 26 who were touchscreen smartphone users and 11 who had old cellphones. The researchers placed 62 electrodes on the test subject’s heads to record activity based on thumb, forefinger, and middle finger movements on the phones.
The results revealed that the cortical representation in touchscreen smartphone users was different compared to people with conventional cellphones.
Ghosh said he also was able to demonstrate that the frequency of smartphone usage influences cortical activity. The more a smartphone had been used in the previous 10 days, the greater the signal in the brain, he noted.
This correlation was the strongest in the area that represented the thumb, he added.
“At first glance, this discovery seems comparable to what happens in violinists,” he said.
The researchers were able to draw two distinctions: First, how long smartphone users have owned and used a device does not play a role. In the case of violinists, however, the activity in the brain depended on the age at which they started playing.
Secondly, there is a linear connection between the activation in the brain and the most recent use of a smartphone, while there was no evidence of this for violinists in earlier studies, the researchers noted.
“The digital technology we use on a daily basis shapes the sensory processing in our brains − and on a scale that surprised us,” Ghosh said.
Source: University of Zurich