I lost a job because I consistently showed up late. Gaming into the wee hours cut into my sleep, so I never could get up on time. When I first stopped gaming, I continued short-changing my sleep by marathon online chatting sessions with people all over the world. I hated myself for this irresponsible behavior, but nevertheless, I would go home from work and start playing my game the minute I walked in the door, and later opening multiple instant messenger systems. I wanted a different kind of life, but not enough, apparently, to make me escape this destructive cycle. I have since learned that the disconnect between what I wanted and how I behaved may have stemmed from the fact that my brain had gone haywire. A computer-game addict has recently brought a lawsuit against a game developer, and the man is now being treated, post-video-game addiction, for severe depression. He could not “get over” his problem without help. Excessive cyber behaviors definitely impact the chemistry of the brain and, therefore, how we behave in our every day lives.
Many people believe that addicts simply lack willpower. These folks see the addict as morally flawed, whereas professionals in the field of addiction view an addict as someone with a chronic brain disorder. “Why can’t you just stop?” non-addicts will often ask. When you ask us to stop gaming or to give up online social networking, you might as well ask that we stop living. The circuits of our brains have become intertwined in the characters and events of our magical reality. The games and our social networking profiles become veritable extensions of ourselves. We chase rewards in our games and amass friends in our online networks with the same intensity that people pursue food when they are hungry. The cyber world completely absorbs the motivational circuitry of our minds. When you attempt to help a cyber addict, you must realize that you are battling fundamental forces within his or her brain.
Although research specifically on gaming and Internet addiction is still limited, results from research on these cyber activities is starting to come in, and we can learn much from examining what science has already confirmed about other behavioral and substance addictions. Indeed, a vast body of scientific evidence shows that genes involved in addiction are not specific to alcoholism or drug dependence, but are involved in all behavioral addictions. Compulsive internet usage and video game play exhibit the same “signature” in the brain as other addictions. As far as the brain is concerned, an addictive reward is a reward, whether it comes from a chemical (alcohol and drugs) or an experience (gambling, the internet or video games, for instance).
Although many aspects of brain chemistry are involved in addiction, the neurotransmitter dopamine plays a key role. Dopamine is a natural chemical in our bodies, a messenger that lets us know we find a certain activity pleasurable. Dopamine also plays a central role in emotional stability and mood regulation. Our brains experience an increase in dopamine levels whenever we do something that makes us feel good and even when we begin a process that will lead to a pleasurable goal or experience. Indeed, the “anticipatory phase” of a goal triggers dopamine levels to rise. It is this natural process of dopamine delivery that gets messed up through addictions. We’ve known for a while that increased levels of dopamine are linked with cocaine, amphetamine, and marijuana use, as well as with alcohol and nicotine addiction. Now scientists are observing these same increased dopamine levels with behavioral addictions such as gambling, internet usage, and video gaming.,
In one study, the human brain was shown to release dopamine while participants were playing video games that involved shooting enemy tanks. The tank-killing success of the player was proportional to the amount of dopamine released. A greater number of “kills,” going to the next level, or gaining more experience points all add up to more dopamine. Another study showed great success in treating cyber-based addiction with a medication that acts on the brain’s reward system; called Naltrexone, the medication had previously been used in treating alcoholism. When this drug was combined with a serotonin reuptake inhibitor (anti-depressant), addictive cyber-urges and behavior declined significantly.
I will be focusing this week on the cerebral aspects of excessive cyber behaviors. I want readers to understand the basics of the neurobiology of cyber addictions. In the next blog, I will be focusing on genetics and risks for becoming addicted. I know this is somewhat heady stuff, but I think it is important to have the complete picture.
- Author Talk and Book Signing: Please join me on Wednesday, Sept. 8, at 7PM at Border’s in downtown Ann Arbor for the first event for Cyber Junkie.
 Powers, Jennifer L. “Dopamine,” Chemistry: Foundations and Applications. Ed. J. J. Lagowski. Vol. 2. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004. 22–23. 4 vols. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Thomson Gale. Bloomfield Township Public Library. 28 June 2007. http://find.galegroup.com
 Ruden, Ronald A. 1997. The Craving Brain. 2nd ed. NY, NY: Harper Collins, pp. 18–19.
 Johnson, Steven. “Your Brain on Video Games,” Discover 24 July 2005.
 Koepp, M.J., R.N. Gunn, A.D. Lawrence, V.J. Cunningham, A. Dagher, T. Jones, D.J. Brooks, C.J. Bench, and P.M. Grasby. “Evidence for striatal dopamine release during a video game.” Nature 393.n6682 (May 21, 1998):266(3).
 Bostwick, J. Michael; Bucci, Jeffrey A.. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, Feb2008, Vol. 83 Issue 2, p. 226.