Comment »Posted on Thursday 16 October 2008 at 5:06 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology

If yesterday you had a few too many drinks, it might be time to hit up Google. Scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles have found that for older web users, searching the internet activates the parts of the brain in charge of decision-making and complex reasoning.

Stretching your mind is important as you get older. As the brain ages changes such as reduced cell activity take place – and as we saw yesterday, the brain shrinks by a suggested 1.9% each decade. In the past people have used crosswords and other brainteasers to sharpen their mental abilities, but with advances in modern technology scientists are now investigating alternatives.

They study looked at 24 volunteers between the ages of 55 and 76, half of whom had searched the internet before whilst the other half had no experience at all. The participants preformed searches as well as book-reading tasks whilst being scanned with an fMRI, which tracks blood flow in the brain as an indicator of cognitive activity.

All of them showed increased activity during the book-reading task, with the scan showing the use of the language, reading, memory and visual abilities parts of the brain. These are located in the temporal, parietal, occipital regions, along with other areas.

Internet searches, however, highlighted a difference. Whilst all participants appeared to be using the same parts of their brain as during the reading exercises, those with previous web experience showed additional activity in the frontal, temporal and cingulate areas of the brain, which are used in decision-making and complex reasoning.

Dr. Gary Small was chief investigator on the study, and is a professor at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA as well as UCLA’s Parlow-Solomon Chair on Aging. He had this to say on the findings:

“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,”

“The study results are encouraging, that emerging computerized technologies may have physiological effects and potential benefits for middle-aged and older adults,”

“Internet searching engages complicated brain activity, which may help exercise and improve brain function.”

So why does reading on the internet engage your brain more than just curling up with a nice book? It’s because the internet is so vast, a read has to make active choices about what to click on and where to go next. This is where decision-making and reasoning factors in.

Small believes that the less experience internet users weren’t using these parts of their brain because they didn’t fully understand the tasks set to them – a common problem when introduced to something new. He suggest that with more time on the internet, they could show the same level of cognitive function as the more experienced group.

The researchers hope that further studies will look at both the positive and negative effects of emerging technology on an elderly brain.

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