Increasing use of smartphone touchscreens is altering brain activity in relation to fingertips, says a new study.

Researchers from Switzerland were intrigued to learn how people’s brains were responding to increased use of their thumbs and other fingertips due to smartphone usage. While other studies have focused on video gamers and motor skills, none had analyzed whether smartphone touchscreens have an effect on the brain in terms of the fingers.

"I was really surprised by the scale of the changes introduced by the use of smartphones," said Arko Ghosh of the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich in Switzerland, in the study published in Current Biology.

Ghosh and his colleagues wanted to examine the everyday plasticity, or adaptability, of the human brain in relation to fingertip use.

“I think first we must appreciate how common personal digital devices are and how densely people use them,” Ghosh said.

Sensitive thumb

Neuroscientists used electroencephalography (EEG) to track the brain response to mechanical touch on the thumb, index and middle fingertips of touchscreen phone users compared to users who used older cellphones – ones without touchscreens.

Researchers discovered that smartphone users' brain activity in the cortex – the part associated with thumb and index fingertips – was directly proportional to the intensity of phone use.

They then compared that to the phone's battery logs to see how much that person had been using their smartphone or cellphone.

The more a person used their phone, the more the brain activity associated with the thumb tip surged, whether or not that thumb was using a touchscreen or not.

“Sensory processing in the contemporary brain is continuously shaped by personal digital technology," Ghosh and his team concluded.