October 16, 2008

Top (blue): Scans showing brain activity of Internet newbies while performing the reading task (left) and the Internet task (right). Below (red): Brain activity of experienced Internet group while performing the reading task (left) and the Internet task (right).

By Theresa Tamkins
THURSDAY, Oct. 16 ( — Internet searches may seem like a routine, even automatic chore in your day, but a new study suggests that googling may be good for the aging brains of experienced Web surfers.

People in their late 50s through 70s were given brain MRIs while they performed searches or simply read books. Those who were Web-experienced showed twice as much activity in parts of the brain associated with complex reasoning and decision-making than those without search experience, according to the study in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

Researchers did the MRI brain scans on 24 healthy volunteers age 57 to 76—half of whom had Internet experience and half who didn't—while they read books or did Web searches. Conditions weren't exactly like those in a home or office, mind you: The volunteers were immobilized inside an MRI tube, a tricky feat that required specialized equipment, according to Gary Small, MD, a professor at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA.

Why would experienced searchers show more brain activity than the newbies?

“The brain doesn’t immediately know how to solve a mental task initially," Dr. Small says, "so you don’t see a lot of activation. But once we grasp it and understand the strategy, then we start activating the appropriate neurocircuits.”

Brain activity was similar among all the volunteers when they read the information in a book format. “They activated the visual cortex as you would expect, they activated language—the kinds of mental functions that you expect from reading a book,” says Dr. Small.

But when an experienced Web user searched, brain activity exceeded that shown in reading. “I would hypothesize that just daily Internet searching is probably exercising our brains,” Dr. Small says.

Dr. Small is researching a book on how technology affects the developing brain in children and teens. He believes the traditional generation gap is also becoming a "brain gap," because exposure to technology may wire the brain differently.

The researchers didn't study how the brain responds to TV watching, but Dr. Small guesses that the same brain response would not occur with tube time.

"The Internet and Google searching is a more interactive type of process than television watching, which is more passive," he said.

Could Google keep you sharp?
Gary Kennedy, MD, director of the division of geriatric psychiatry at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, N.Y., notes that the study is only a snapshot of the brain and can't determine if Internet searches actually improve brain function over time.

More research is needed to see if Internet use can improve the frontal part of the brain, which is involved in planning, anticipating, and self-monitoring—skills that can decline in those with dementia. If it does, then Web use could help retain cognitive functioning in the aging brain. (Physical exercise has already been shown to improve mental function with aging.)

Studies of memory-boosting commercial software also suggest that it can help some of your cognitive processes, he says.

That said, Google isn't god.

“I don’t think the computer is the magic answer,” says Dr. Kennedy, who was not involved in the study. “You should be doing something you enjoy that’s also a little bit taxing, like bridge, like chess, or reading up on an area you’re not familiar with—you may need to go to the dictionary and look up a few words.”

Dr. Kennedy suggests a complex strategy for brain preservation.

“You need to stay physically active, intellectually alive, and socially engaged. Some people would add a spiritual component to that as well,” he says. “You need to have something that stimulates you and it needs to be regular and routine, yes, but with some degree of novelty.”

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