Friday, October 23, 2009

Learning to Surf the Internet Gives Brain a Boost

In recent years, new technologies have allowed scientists to gain a greater understanding of how the human brain ages and why, to pinpoint the parts of the brain that function or fail as a person ages, to predict when an older person is in the early stages of cognitive decline, and to find effective ways to prevent this decline. Previous studies have shown that mental exercise, especially learning new things or pursuing intellectually stimulating activities can increase the efficiency of cognitive processing and preserve mental functions. And scientists say learning to surf the Internet may be the latest way to exercise the mind and keep it strong.

A new study shows older adults who learn to search for information online experience a surge of activity in key decision-making and reasoning centers of the brain. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles compared brain activity in different regions of the brain in 24 healthy adults aged 55 to 78. Prior to the study, half the participants used the Internet daily, while the other half had very little experience.

An initial brain scan of those with little Internet experience showed brain activity in the regions controlling language, reading, memory and visual abilities. After the first scan, participants went home where they conducted Internet searches for one hour a day for a total of seven days over a two-week period. These searches involved using the web to answer questions about various topics by visiting different websites and obtaining information.

A second brain scan conducted on participants with minimal online experience after the home Internet searches demonstrated activity of the same regions of the brain as the first scan, but there was also activity in the middle frontal gyrus and inferior frontal gyrus, areas of the brain known to be important in working memory and decision making—activity patterns very similar to those seen in the group of experienced Internet users.

The results suggest Internet training and searching online could potentially enhance brain function and cognition in older adults. “We found that for older people with minimal experience, performing Internet searches for even a relatively short period of time can change brain activity patterns and enhance function,” Dr. Gary Small, a professor of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, said in a news release. Previous research by the UCLA team found that searching online resulted in a more than twofold increase in brain activation in older adults with prior experience, compared with those with little Internet experience.

Most experts now embrace the “use-it-or-lose-it” approach to brain functioning. “We found a number of years ago that people who engaged in cognitive activities had better functioning and perspective than those who did not,” said Dr. Richard Lipton, a professor of neurology and epidemiology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City and director of the Einstein Aging Study. “Our study is often referenced as the crossword-puzzle study —that doing puzzles, writing for pleasure, playing chess and engaging in a broader array of cognitive activities seem to protect against age-related decline in cognitive function and also dementia.”

The UCLA team says additional studies are needed to help identify aspects of online searching that generate the greatest levels of brain activation, as well as the impact of the Internet on younger individuals.

The findings were presented October 19 at the meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Chicago, Illinois.

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