Researchers: Navigating the Web Boots Up Your Brain

Searching the Internet and reading things online are more than just a way to pass the time, according to a new study released by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

A research team headed by Dr. Gary Small, a professor at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, found that when Web-savvy older adults surf the Internet, it can trigger key centers in the brain that control decision-making and complex reasoning. In short, the findings indicate that searching the Web may help stimulate and possibly improve brain function.

“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,” Small told TechNewsWorld.

The Brainiacs

As the brain ages, a number of structural and functional changes occur that can impact cognitive function, according to Small, including atrophy, reductions in cell activity and increases in deposits of amyloid plaques and tau tangles — both indicators of Alzheimer’s disease.

Engaging in activities that keep the mind engaged, like crossword puzzles, may help preserve brain health and cognitive ability. However, with the advance of technology and the ubiquity of computer usage, researchers have begun to look at technological influences such as searching the Internet.

The study involved 24 volunteers ages 55 to 76, half of whom had experience searching the Net and half who had no experience. Levels of education, age and gender were similar between the two groups.

The study participants performed Web search and book-reading tasks while researchers scanned their brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and recorded the subtle brain-circuitry changes taking place during those activities.

All participants showed significant brain activity during the book-reading task, demonstrating use of the regions controlling language, reading memory and visual abilities.

However, “we found that the people who had experience with the Internet had a much greater extent of activation of all areas of the brain, particularly the frontal lobes — the part of the brain that controls complex decision making, reasoning and putting together the big picture,” Small said.

Web search novices also showed increased activity, but to a lesser extent than their more technologically savvy counterparts.

“The other part of the study we are analyzing the data on now is that when we took the computer naive people and gave them a chance to practice searching the Internet, within a week their brains started looking like the people who had done it for years,” Small explained.

The findings indicate the brain is still plastic or malleable even in middle age and beyond, he continued. “It suggests that you can teach an old brain new technology tricks.”

Striking a Balance

A variety of tools have sprung up in recent years both online and off that purport to help aging brains remain nimble and boost memory. Nintendo, for instance, has a line of “Brain Age” games for its DS portable gaming device.

“There is a lot of interest in exercising the brain — the idea of ‘use it or lose it.’ There are new technologies to help us do that. This study suggests that a simple, everyday task like searching the Internet could be yet another way of strengthening neural circuits and creating greater brain efficiency in the frontal lobe,” said Small, author of iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind.

There is, however, the possibility that too much technology could be bad for the human brain.

“We have to be mindful of the downside of technology. People get addicted to it. [It] can possibly contribute to attention deficit disorder and other problems. So, we want to balance it with offline activities,” Small pointed out.

Three hundred thousand years ago, our ancestors’ first use of handheld tools led to a major milestone in brain evolution, he said. “Frontal lobes grew, complex reasoning and language skills progressed. Evolution is basically our adaptation to our environment, and that is changing,” he noted.

“The average young person spends nearly nine hours a day with technology. What’s going to be the impact of that on our survival of the fittest? That could make it difficult for people to draw conclusions based on another’s facial expressions,” Small warned.

People should be encouraged that computers are something that can really enhance our quality of life. However, they should be used in a way that helps our brains and does not hurt them, something everyone should be mindful of, according to Small.

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