What do these brain scans mean

Does media multitasking change the brain?

Always in front of more than one screen? The simultaneous use of devices such as smartphones, laptops and televisions could change the structure of the brain in the long term, researchers from England report. However, the differences they measured could also be the cause of increased media multitasking, not its effect, as the researchers in the magazine "PLOS ONE" emphasize. Long-term studies are necessary to assess possible health risks.

From televisions to smartphones - various media devices are becoming increasingly important in our everyday lives. Many people often use several such devices at the same time: when working on a laptop, they make a phone call or use the tablet to get additional information about the television program that is switched on. Little research has been done to date on the effects this media multitasking could have on our health.

Gray matter with lower density

Previous studies have found a link between high multitasking and low attention span, as well as emotional problems such as depression or restlessness. "Media multitasking is becoming increasingly common in everyday life, and there is growing concern about its impact on our mental abilities and our socio-emotional wellbeing," says Kep Kee Loh of the University of Sussex.

Together with his colleague Ryota Kanai, the neuroscientist performed magnetic resonance scans on 75 adult study participants. The participants had previously stated in a questionnaire how intensively they use different media such as mobile phones or television sets, and whether they also do this with several devices at the same time.

The anterior cynguli gyrus is part of the limbic system and is important for emotional and social control functions. © University of Sussex

They found that people who used a higher number of devices at the same time had a lower density of gray matter in the anterior cyngulus gyrus. It is known that this region of the brain contains various emotional and social control functions, and it is an important part of the limbic system, which processes emotions, learning processes and memories. "Our study is the first to show a connection between media multitasking and brain structure."

Cause or effect?

However, the scientists emphasize that they only found a connection, not a cause. It doesn't necessarily mean that multitasking changes the brain - people with less dense gray matter might just as well be inclined to use multiple media at the same time. "On the one hand, it is conceivable that people with a smaller cyngular gyrus are more receptive to multitasking because they have less cognitive control or socio-emotional regulation," explains Kep Kee Loh. “On the other hand, it is just as plausible that more multitasking changes this area of ​​the brain structurally.” Long-term studies are required to determine this with certainty.

It is known, however, that new environments and experiences over a longer period of time can indeed cause changes in the structure of the brain. Nerve pathways and synapses change depending on behavior, the environment and feelings. In learning processes, for example, this happens at the cellular level. In certain areas of the brain, gray matter density increases as you learn new skills, be it juggling or memorizing a city map. But it can also be a far-reaching process if, for example, after an injury or a stroke, entire functions are relocated from a damaged brain region to another area. "The exact mechanisms of this change are still unclear," says Kep Kee Loh.

(University of Sussex, 09/25/2014 - AKR)

September 25, 2014