They say the discovery could shed new light on why online obsessions affect some but not others. Online addiction is a growing problem, and researchers now believe it could be tied to a genetic variant linked to nicotine addiction only some people have.
‘It was shown that Internet addiction is not a figment of our imagination,’ says the lead author, Professor Dr. Christian Montag from the Department for Differential and Biological Psychology at the University of Bonn. ‘Researchers and therapists are increasingly closing in on it.’
Over the past years, the Bonn researchers have interviewed a total of 843 people about their Internet habits. From this, they found 132 online addicts, who they compared with a control group.
Behaviors that marked out addicts 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, and has been linked to loneliness and depression.
‘What we already know about the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor in the brain is that a mutation on the related gene promotes addictive behavior,’ said Montag. ‘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.
The team also found women were more affected, although they believe that may be down to the participants chosen rather than a general problem.
The team hope their research could lead to better therapies for internet addicts.