Dr. Stephanie Antons
© UDE/Fabian Strauch

Why I do research: Stephanie Antons

Understanding addictive behaviour

  • von Juliana Fischer
  • 26.10.2023

Be it World of Warcraft or pornography: it's easy to get lost in the digital world. Dr Stephanie Antons is researching how problematic addictive behaviour can develop from media consumption. Her work leads the UDE psychologist to the 7 Tesla MRI of the Erwin L. Hahn Institute in Essen. Here she uses high-resolution brain scans to gain deeper insights into the activities of various brain areas and their connection to addictive behaviour.

Dr Antons, you are researching addictive behaviour in the digital era. What are you particularly interested in?
I research the so-called gaming disorder as well as pornography use disorder. These are non-substance-related behavioural addictions where I am particularly interested in why some people have reduced control over these rewarding behaviours and experience suffering and functional limitations in everyday life as a result.

What does your work on this in DFG Research Group 2974 look like?
In our current study with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we are investigating how people react to different stimuli that are associated with addictive behaviour and what happens in the brain during this process. To do this, we work with three groups of participants: Persons who exhibit addictive behaviour, persons at risk of addiction and a control group. The latter consists of people who use the media on a regular basis.

After laboratory tests and clinical interviews at the LWL University Hospital of the RUB, we invite the participants to an fMRI appointment at the Erwin L. Hahn Institute. In the MRI, they are shown three different stimuli. In the case of pornography use disorder for example, these are: explicit pornographic images, distal stimuli that are closely associated with addictive behaviour, such as login screens of pornographic sites, and relatively neutral control images. Throughout the images, we can determine in the fMRI scans which brain areas are particularly active in the group of people with behavioural addiction when viewing the addiction-associated images - and how the brain activity compares to the control images.

Which areas of the brain are involved?
First of all, there is the reward system. Our research suggests that, similar to people with substance addiction, this system shows greater activity when stimuli are present that are related to the specific addictive behaviour. Furthermore, we observe that a system that reflects habits is also more activated in the subjects. Therefore, we assume that addictive behaviour is carried out in an increasingly automated way and is perhaps still carried out excessively in later phases of the development of the disorder, but is no longer perceived as so strongly rewarding.

You are conducting basic research in a fairly new field of application. How does this research affect the situation of patients? 
The evidence on the central mechanisms of the development and maintenance of behavioural addictions is put together piece by piece like a puzzle with each of our studies. In brain research, we can now prove that there are parallels between substance and behavioural addictions, especially with regard to the central role of the reward system. This insight is very important for the classification of the disorders and has also contributed to the gaming disorder being classified as a behavioural addiction in 2019, for example. For me, this was a special moment, because the recognition of the disorder makes it much easier to treat those affected.

At the ICBA in South Korea this year you were awarded the “Best Paper of the Year in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions Award”. What is the paper about?
The article is dealing with the question of which therapeutic measures help patients with problematic pornography use. We analysed existing studies in a systematic review. And the results are quite encouraging, they show that cognitive behavioural therapy can have a good effect. With such a body of studies, the basis for more and better therapies can be created in the future.


Neuroscience in Duisburg-Essen and Bochum
Learning, remembering, predicting – researchers aim to understand these processes from the molecular to the behavioural level. To this end, the University of Duisburg-Essen and Ruhr University Bochum cooperate in the Collaborative Research Centre 1280 “Extinction Learning”. Furthermore, there is close cooperation in the research group “Affective and cognitive mechanisms of specific Internet-use disorders” and in various other projects. In 2021, the Research Center One Health was founded – providing another opportunity for the two universities to combine their strength. Already since 2007, Ruhr University Bochum, the University of Duisburg-Essen and the Technical University of Dortmund have been working closely together strategically under the umbrella of the University Alliance Ruhr.

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