Smartphone Dependence, Brain Connectivity and Depressive Symptoms in Adolescents

In 2018 a large nationally representative survey study alerted readers to the potential link between use of smartphones and increases in depressive and suicide-related symptoms among U.S. adolescents. To help develop interventions to address this important problem, Olga Tymofiyeva, PhD, assistant professor in the UC San Francisco Department of Radiology and Biomedical Imaging, along with her colleagues, embarked on the quest of trying to understand of the brain mechanisms that underlie potential smartphone dependence.

They recently published an exploratory study of 19 adolescent volunteers who completed self-assessments of their smartphone dependence, depressive symptoms and sleep problems. Each of the 19 adolescents underwent diffusion MRI that allowed for assessment of white matter structural connectivity within the framework of connectomics.  

In alignment with the team’s hypotheses, the results of this study showed correlations between the node centrality connectivity of the right amygdala and self-reported smartphone dependence, between smartphone dependence and sleep problems, and between sleep problems and depressive symptoms. A higher phone dependence was observed in females compared to males.

Supported by these results, the team proposed a model of how smartphone dependence can be linked to aberrations in brain networks, sex, sleep disturbances and depression in adolescents. The full article can be found in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

Lead author on this study, Dr. Tymofiyeva arrived in the Bay Area to do her postdoctoral training here. Originally from Kyiv, Ukraine, Dr. Tymofiyeva obtained her PhD in Wuerzburg, Germany. Her main research focus is non-invasive mapping of the structure, microstructure, connectivity and function of the developing adolescent brain. As a new faculty member in the Department of Radiology and Biomedical Imaging, she leads the BrainChange Lab. In this lab, Dr. Tymofiyeva and team develop and apply advanced MRI techniques to study the neurobiological substrates of mental disorders, such as adolescent depression, and the effects of non-pharmacological mind-body interventions (such as mindfulness meditation and placebo) on teens.

Additional authors from UCSF Radiology on this study include Duan Xu, PhD, professor in residence, who leads the Imaging Research for Neurodevelopment Lab, along with Roma Kidambi (research assistant in Dr. Tymofiyeva’s Lab), Justin Yuan (assistant specialist in Dr. Tymofiyeva’s lab) and Namasvi Jariwala (senior clinical research coordinator). Additional authors from UCSF include Tony Yang, MD, PhD (UCSF Psychiatry, UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences), Chiung-Yu Huang, PhD (UCSF Epidemiology & Biostatistics), and Mark Rubinstein, MD (UCSF Pediatrics). Jeffrey Max, MD (UC San Diego) and Eva Henje, MD, PhD (University of Umea, Sweden) were also authors.

Overall, the team hopes that the results of the study and the proposed model (once tested in large-scale studies) can aid in the development of effective and empowering interventions to help young people regulate their behavior with respect to modern technologies and, potentially, prevent adolescent depression and suicide.

According to Dr. Tymofiyeva, the significance of this research direction it that it seeks to shift the current clinical practice paradigm: The status quo as it pertains to dealing with adolescent depression is to try to reduce symptoms with standard treatments, once depression has been diagnosed. Instead, the team wants to investigate the usage of modern technology as a potential cause of sleep problems and depressive symptoms in teens, and to move towards neurobiologically-based preventive interventions.

Dr. Tymofiyeva emphasizes that this was a small exploratory study with a cross-sectional study design, meaning that it’s not possible to determine the causality: correlations don’t mean causation. The team plans as the next step to test experimentally whether reduction in smartphone usage normalizes brain circuitry and reduces phone dependence, sleep problems, and depressive symptoms. For this new study they will be recruiting adolescents who will be randomly assigned to a group that with be instructed to reduce their phone usage and to a control group. We look forward to seeing the results of the new study.

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