December 17, 2008
Lots of people search the Web for health and medical information, including information about Alzheimer's disease. Now, new research suggests that surfing the Internet may be good for the brain.
Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, studied 24 healthy men and women ranging in age from 55 to 76. All were mentally sharp for their age. Half were regular Internet users, while the other half were not skilled at using the Web.
The scientists then had the study participants perform two sets of tasks: one involved reading a book, and the other searching the Web. They measured their brain waves using a scanning technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging, which records blood flow in the brain.
They found that searching the Internet triggers key centers in the brain involved in decision-making and complex reasoning. The findings, to be published in the upcoming issue of The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, suggest that searching the Web may stimulate brain function.
"Our most striking finding was that Internet searching appears to engage a greater extent of neural circuitry that is not activated during reading but only in those with prior Internet experience," said Dr. Gary Small, director of the U.C.L.A. Memory and Aging Research Center. He is the author of a new book, "iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind," which looks at the effects of new technologies on the brain.
Whether Web surfing actually prevents cognitive decline or Alzheimer's is unknown and cannot be concluded from this study. The basic conclusion of this study is that people who gain competence in a mental activity show different patterns of brain activity than people who are new to the activity. How this affects healthy brain aging remains to be determined, though there is reason to believe that mental stimulation does contribute to healthy aging.
Dr. Small suggests that pursuing activities that keep the mind engaged may help preserve brain health and cognitive ability. Traditionally, these include games such as crossword puzzles, but with the advent of technology, scientists are beginning to assess the influence of computer use including the Internet.
"The study results are encouraging, that emerging computerized technologies may have physiological effects and potential benefits for middle-aged and older adults," said Dr. Small. "Internet searching engages complicated brain activity, which may help exercise and improve brain function."
As the brain ages, a number of structural and functional changes occur, including shrinkage and reductions in cell activity. Age and Alzheimer's disease also bring an increase in deposits of abnormal protein build-up called beta-amyloid plaques and tau tangles, which may dull thinking and memory skills.
During Web searching, the Web-savvy volunteers showed a twofold increase in brain activation when compared with those who had little Internet experience. The tiniest measurable unit of brain activity registered by the functional M.R.I. is called a voxel. During Internet searching, those with prior Web experience sparked 21,782 voxels, compared with only 8,646 voxels for those with less experience.
The scientists said that compared with simple reading, the Internet's wealth of choices requires that people make decisions about what to click on in order to pursue more information, an activity that engages important cognitive circuits in the brain.
"A simple, everyday task like searching the Web might enhance brain circuitry in older adults, demonstrating that our brains are sensitive and can continue to learn as we grow older," Dr. Small said.
Dr. Small added that the minimal brain activation found in the less experienced Internet group may be due to participants not quite grasping the strategies needed to successfully engage in an Internet search, which is common while learning a new activity.
"With more time on the Internet, they may demonstrate the same brain activation patterns as the more experienced group," he said.
The researchers noted that additional studies will address both the positive and negative influences of these emerging technologies on the aging brain.
Source: University of California, Los Angeles, Medical Center.