European researchers say our smartphone use offers scientists an ideal testing ground for human brain plasticity. Dr Ako Ghosh's team discovered that the brains and thumbs of smartphone users interact differently from those who use old-fashioned handsets. Jim Drury went to meet him.
Constant smartphone typing has become part of our daily lives. And it's changing our brains, say European researchers. Dr Arko Ghosh, of ETH Zurich and the University of Zurich, hooked up right-handed volunteers to EEG brain wave caps. Ghosh examined how subjects' brains processed touch from their thumb, forefinger and middle finger, alongside the history of the smartphone interactions recorded by their phone logs. University of Fribourg student Magalai Chytiris helped study the findings. SOUNDBITE (English) MAGALI CHYITIRIS, STUDENT AT UNIVERSITY OF FRIBOURG, SAYING: "This activity is related to the amount of use from the past days of phone use. So we used the logs, the battery logs, from the phone and we found that if the EEG recording was just after the peak of high intensive use then the brain activity was higher." Activity in the brain's cortex associated with the thumb and index fingertips was directly proportional to the intensity of phone use. SOUNDBITE (English) ARKO GHOSH, OF THE UNIVERSITY OF ZURICH AND ETH ZURICH, SAYING: "These red spots here indicate when you measure the signals of these electrodes a lot of the differences between one person and the next can be explained simply by how much phone they were using in the previous ten days." The results, published in Current Biology, suggests repetitive touchscreen movements reshape cortical sensory processing. Ghosh says smartphone use is an ideal way to explore brain plasticity and plans to conduct further tests. SOUNDBITE (English) ARKO GHOSH, OF THE UNIVERSITY OF ZURICH AND ETH ZURICH, SAYING: "It gives us a very good excuse to go back and look into the phone logs in greater detail to understand how our digital histories could be used to understand brain function and develop real world solutions by studying the real world example of brain plasticity." There are almost two billion smartphone users world-wide. And with phone logs offering plentiful accurate data, Ghosh says this resource is surely worth tapping into.