UCLA scientists have found that for computer-savvy middle-aged and older adults, searching the Internet triggers key centers in the brain that control decision-making and complex reasoning, indicating that Web searching may help stimulate and possibly improve brain function.
The study, the first of its kind to assess the impact of Internet searching on brain performance, is scheduled for publication in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.
“The study results are encouraging, that emerging computerized technologies may have physiological effects and potential benefits for middle-aged and older adults,” principal investigator Gary Small, MD, Professor and Director of the UCLA Center on Aging at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, said in a news release. “Internet searching engages complicated brain activity, which may help exercise and improve brain function.”
Dr. Small and his colleagues Teena D. Moody, PhD, Senior Research Associate, and Susan Y. Bookheimer, PhD, Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, worked with 24 neurologically normal research volunteers between age 55 and 76; half had experience searching the Internet, while the other half did not. Age, educational level, and gender were similar between the two groups.
Study participants performed Web searches and book-reading tasks while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans. All participants showed significant brain activity during the book-reading task, demonstrating use of the brain regions controlling language, reading, memory, and visual abilities, located in the temporal, parietal, occipital, and other areas of the brain.
Internet searches showed a major difference between the two groups. While all participants demonstrated the same brain activity seen during the book-reading task, the Web-savvy group also registered activity in the frontal, temporal, and cingulate areas of the brain, which control decision-making and complex reasoning.
“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,” Dr. Small said.
During Web searching, volunteers with prior experience registered a twofold increase in brain activation when compared with those with little Internet experience—21,782 voxels (the smallest measurable unit of brain activity registered by fMRI) vs only 8,646 voxels for those with less experience.
Dr. Small noted that the minimal brain activation found in the less experienced Internet group may be due to participants not quite grasping the strategies needed—typical for 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.