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Internet search results: Increased brain activity

Functional MRI brain scans show neural activity (red) in a volunteer reading, left, and searching Google, right.

Time spent Googling the latest campaign news or searching for choice eBay buys may help stimulate and improve the minds of middle-aged and older Americans, UCLA scientists suggest.

Research reported in next month’s American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry is the first to assess how performing Internet searches influences brain activity in older Americans, says study author Gary Small, professor at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA.

The research included 24 healthy volunteers ages 55 to 76. Half had Internet-searching experience, and the others had none. All were asked to perform Web searches and book-reading tasks while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, which recorded the brain-circuitry changes they were experiencing.

All of the volunteers showed significant brain activity during the reading task, which stimulated brain regions that control language, reading, memory and visual abilities.

 

 

But during Internet searches, major differences flared up between the two groups, Small says. Only those who had previous Web-search experience registered extensive activity in decision-making and complex-reasoning portions of the brain.

“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 people with prior Internet experience,” Small says. He is also co-author of iBrain (HarperCollins, 2008), which was released on Tuesday and explores how older Americans can keep up with younger generations in an increasingly technological world.

Small says that over time, he’d expect the inexperienced Internet searchers to benefit as well.

Harvard neuroscientist Randy Buckner says the study is interesting because it explores influences of the modern world on the brain. But he wonders if completely novel activities influence brain activity or if it’s the activity of Web searching itself that causes a leap in brain bustle.

Just how much time a person needs to spend tapping away on the keyboard to keep the mind spry needs to be answered, too, says Gary Kennedy, director of geriatric psychiatry at Montefiore Medical Center in New York.

Says Kennedy: “As with physical exercise, what kind and how much cognitive stimulation is going to be right without doing injury?”

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