What Do Smartphones Do to the Brain?




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Even as the smartphone continues to evolve in functionality and power, parents are anxious that their kids seem to be addicted to their device. According to them, all that their kids do is switch off their ears, bury their heads, and tap, flick, and scroll on their touchphone screens. But, scientists have discovered at least one way in which the smartphone affects the brain positively.

There are as many people who see the smartphone as a pest and a distraction as there are people who hail the device as a marvel of technology. It is no wonder guardians are worried about the excessive use of smartphones. But not everything is as bad as it might look to some people.

Smartphone Usage Can Reorganize Brain Structure

According to a new study published this year, regular and heavy smartphone users exhibit increased activity in the cortical area of their brains in response to touch on their thumb, index, and middle fingers. Incidentally, the thumb and the index finger are those used most by smartphone users.

The researchers compared the results of this study with brain scan images of other individuals who used older makes of phones. The results of this comparative study showed that the fingers of the smartphone users were much more sensitive to touch (as demonstrated by the flurry of activity in the cortical region) than those of the non-smartphone users. What is more, the cortical activity increased proportional to phone usage. The study also found that the thumb showed the most sensitivity to smartphone usage.

In this context it is worth mentioning that the smartphone study found no evidence of a relationship between cortical structure and activity and the number of years the subject had been using a smartphone. It seems the brain starts to show changes, albeit subtle ones, after just weeks. The scientists believe that the findings of their study indicate that the brain has the ability to reshape and rewire itself influenced by daily activities, such as the use of personal digital technology.

Smartphone Users Exhibit Similar Neural Plasticity as Piano Players

The findings from the above study seem to corroborate the conclusions drawn from another piece of research conducted on musicians a decade ago. That study compared the level of tactile acuity in non-musicians and in professional pianists who had been practicing every day for long hours for many years. It was found that the musicians had greater degrees of tactile acuity than the non-musicians. Amongst the musicians, those who had been practicing more intensively through the years showed more sensitivity.

The study went a step further and subjected the pianists and the non-musicians to tactile co-activation. Tactile co-activation is a passive pulse stimulation protocol that is known to enhance activity in the somatosensory cortex or the region of the brain that responds to tactile stimuli. This brings about an improvement in tactile and spatial discrimination performances without the subjects going through a physical training and learning program. According to the findings of another study, the improvements in the performance are directly proportional to the increase in the primary and secondary somatosensory cortical areas of the brain.

Researchers found that after tactile co-activation, both the pianists and the non-musician groups exhibited improved tactile acuity. But the pianists exhibited a greater degree of improvement than the non-musicians. Again, the degree of gain in performance was positively correlated to the intensity of musical practice. These findings led the scientists to believe that the sensorimotor cortical structure and functionalities are essentially different in musicians than in non-musicians and that former’s brains are more adaptable making them better learners.

Repetitive Tasks and Finger Movements Can Stimulate the Brain

Training and learning through attention and reinforcement of stimuli can bring about changes in the cortical organization, which in turn, improves perceptual performance. Last year, a study was carried out on several stroke patients with varying degrees of sensory impairment and mild to severe motor deficit. They were made to undergo regular sensorimotor training sessions whether they had to explore, feel, and discriminate between textures, shapes, weights, temperatures, and objects with their hands. Brain scan images taken after the training period showed that both patients had experienced subtle neural reorganization.

A similar suggestion was made after another study was carried out on two groups of musicians who had received unimodal and multimodal training. It was demonstrated that sensorimotor-auditory training reorganizes the cortical region and makes it more flexible.

The findings of the above studies hold hope for stroke patients and other individuals who may have suffered brain injuries. Researchers, physicians, and physical therapists should look into devising physical rehabilitation programs that engage and exercise the hands of the patients in an effort to stimulate regions of their brains to reorganize and possibly restore the lost neural connections. Such therapy can enhance the quality of life of the patients.

The findings of several other studies also suggest that performing tasks repetitively with the fingers can increase cortical plasticity. One study cites the instance of Braille readers and musicians who perform on string instruments. The subjects in the study had been using their fingers to perform various tasks for many years. All of them exhibited excellent sensorimotor skills and enhanced activity in the cortical regions of their brains. The study also reported that extended periods of disuse, like when the arm was cast in a plaster and immobilized, resulted in decreased tactile acuity in the affected hand (as was evident from the deteriorating levels of perceptual performance) and decreased activity in the corresponding somatosensory cortical region.

So do these findings suggest that using smartphones can make you smarter? Although recent studies have found that heavy smartphone users have increased cortical activities, it is still quite early to confirm or negate a positive correlation between using a smartphone and scoring straight A’s in college. So smartphone addicts: you do not yet have the license to forego the company of friends and family members or forsake exercise in favor of your iPhone!

References

Borstad AL, Bird T, Choi S, Goodman L, Schmalbrock P, & Nichols-Larsen DS (2013). Sensorimotor training and neural reorganization after stroke: a case series. Journal of neurologic physical therapy : JNPT, 37 (1), 27-36 PMID: 23399924

Gindrat, A., Chytiris, M., Balerna, M., Rouiller, E., & Ghosh, A. (2015). Use-Dependent Cortical Processing from Fingertips in Touchscreen Phone Users Current Biology, 25 (1), 109-116 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2014.11.026

Hodzic, A. (2004). Improvement and Decline in Tactile Discrimination Behavior after Cortical Plasticity Induced by Passive Tactile Coactivation Journal of Neuroscience, 24 (2), 442-446 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3731-03.2004

Höffken, O., Veit, M., Knossalla, F., Lissek, S., Bliem, B., Ragert, P., Dinse, H., & Tegenthoff, M. (2007). Sustained increase of somatosensory cortex excitability by tactile coactivation studied by paired median nerve stimulation in humans correlates with perceptual gain The Journal of Physiology, 584 (2), 463-471 DOI: 10.1113/jphysiol.2007.140079

Lappe, C., Herholz, S., Trainor, L., & Pantev, C. (2008). Cortical Plasticity Induced by Short-Term Unimodal and Multimodal Musical Training Journal of Neuroscience, 28 (39), 9632-9639 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2254-08.2008

Lissek, S., Wilimzig, C., Stude, P., Pleger, B., Kalisch, T., Maier, C., Peters, S., Nicolas, V., Tegenthoff, M., & Dinse, H. (2009). Immobilization Impairs Tactile Perception and Shrinks Somatosensory Cortical Maps Current Biology, 19 (10), 837-842 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2009.03.065

Ragert, P., Schmidt, A., Altenmüller, E., & Dinse, H. (2004). Superior tactile performance and learning in professional pianists: evidence for meta-plasticity in musicians European Journal of Neuroscience, 19 (2), 473-478 DOI: 10.1111/j.0953-816X.2003.03142.x

Image via nenetus / Shutterstock.

Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD

Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD, is a scientific and medical consultant with experience in pharmaceutical and genetic research. He has an extensive publication history on various topics related to medical sciences. He worked at several leading academic institutions around the globe (Cambridge University (UK), University of New South Wales (Australia), National Institute of Genetics (Japan). Dr. Wlassoff runs consulting service specialized on preparation of scientific publications, medical and scientific writing and editing (Scientific Biomedical Consulting Services).
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