Internet addiction causes changes in the brain similar to that normally seen in people addicted to alcohol and drugs such as cocaine and cannabis, a study has found.

Researchers in China scanned the brains of 17 young web addicts and found that the way in which their brains were wired up was disrupted, The Independent reported Thursday. The scans were compared with that of 16 individuals who were not addicted.

The findings, published in the online journal Public Library of Science One, revealed that the changes were similar to brain alterations observed in people addicted to alcohol and cocaine.

"Overall, our findings indicate that IAD [internet addiction disorder] has abnormal white matter integrity in brain regions involving emotional generation and processing, executive attention, decision-making and cognitive control," head researcher Dr. Hao Lei and colleagues wrote, according to the BBC.

About five to 10 percent of people who use the internet are believed to be addicted, with most of them being gamers who play for hours without food and drink and neglect other aspects of their lives, The Independent reported.

"The majority of people we see with serious internet addiction are gamers -- people who spend long hours in roles in various games that cause them to disregard their obligations," said Henrietta Bowden Jones, a psychiatrist who runs the UK's only taxpayer-funded clinic for both gambling and internet addicts.

"I have seen people who stopped attending university lectures, failed their degrees or their marriages broke down because they were unable to emotionally connect with anything outside the game," she said.

"When someone comes to you and says they did not sleep last night because they spent 14 hours playing games, and it was the same the previous night, and they tried to stop but they couldn't -- you know they have a problem," Bowden Jones added.

However, a drugs expert has questioned the study, saying that other stimulants might have contributed to the brain changes.

"The limitations [of this study] are that it is not controlled, and it's possible that illicit drugs, alcohol or other caffeine-based stimulants might account for the changes. The specificity of 'internet addiction disorder' is also questionable," said Professor Michael Farrell, director of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, University of New South Wales, Australia.

Cases of web addiction turned deadly have increasingly come to light in recent years -- with a British student dying after developing deep vein thrombosis while playing games on his Xbox for 12 hours straight.

In the US, a mother from New Mexico was sentenced to 25 years in jail after her neglected three-year-old daughter starved to death while she was engrossed with fantasy role-playing game "World of Warcraft."

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