It would appear that learning to silver surf the Net boosts the brain: researchers in the US found signs of enhanced neural stimulation in parts of the brain that control decision-making and reasoning when they scanned the brains of middle aged and older first time Internet users after only seven days of silver surfing.

Scientists from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) presented the findings of their study on 19 October to delegates attending the Neuroscience 2009 meeting in Chicago.

They put forward the idea that learning to use the Internet stimulates neural activation patterns and could enhance brain function and cognition in older adults.

First author Teena D Moody, a senior research associate at the Semel Institute at UCLA, told the press that:

“The results suggest that searching online may be a simple form of brain exercise that might be employed to enhance cognition in older adults.”

Co-author Dr Gary Small, a professor of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, who has written a book titled iBrain that describes the impact of new technology on the brain and behavior, said:

“We found that for older people with minimal experience, performing Internet searches for even a relatively short period of time can change brain activity patterns and enhance function.”

The structure of the brain and how it works changes as we age. One such change is atrophy, where cell activity slows down and deposits like amyloid plaques and tau tangles increase, impacting cognitive functions like thinking, learning and memory.

Other studies have suggested that the mental stimulation that occurs in people who frequently use the Internet may affect the efficiency of cognitive processing and change the way the brain encodes new information.

For this research, which was funded by the Parvin Foundation, Moody and colleagues recruited 24 volunteers aged 55 to 78 whose brains worked normally. Half them had already been using the Internet every day, while the other half had little experience of the Net. But apart from this, the two groups were similar in terms of age, education and gender.

At the start of the study, the participants performed Internet searches while the researchers took functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of their brains to track changes in blood flow in the brain and record subtle changes in neural activity.

After that, the participants went home and continued to perform Internet searches for an hour a day on a total of seven days over a period of 2 weeks.

During their home sessions, the participants researched and answered given questions on a range of topics where they had to explore websites and read information.

They then came back to the lab and the researchers scanned their brains again while they did similar Internet tasks as in their home practice but this time they answered questions on different topics.

The results showed that at the first scan, the brains of participants with little Internet experience showed activity in regions that control language, reading, memory and visual ability. These are in the frontal, temporal, parietal, visual and posterior cingulate regions of the brain.

At the second scan, after practising searching the Internet for 7 days over 2 weeks at home, the brains of the Internet novices showed activity in the same regions as before, but this time there was new activity in the middle frontal gyrus and inferior frontal gyrus, the parts of the brain that are important for working memory and decision-making.

In fact, after just seven days of using the Internet at home, the novice Internet users showed brain activitation patterns that were very similar to those seen in the group of experienced Internet users, said the researchers.

Moody said that when a person is carrying out an Internet search, they need to hold important information in working memory and extract relevant detail from arrays of competing pictures and words.

In previous studies, the UCLA researchers have shown that searching the Internet results in a twofold increase in brain activitation in older adults with previous Internet experience compared to those with little or none.

Small suggested that this study shows it may only take a matter of days for the brain activity of a person with minimum Internet experience to catch up with those who have been practising for years.

More research could find out how Internet use affects the brains of younger people, and also identify which tasks involved in online searching cause the most brain activity, said the researchers.

“Neural activation patterns in older adults following Internet training.”
TD Moody, H Gaddipati, GW Small, SY Bookheimer.
Poster Session 382.3/GG2, Human Cognition and Behavior: Aging Studies
Presented Mon, Oct 19, at Neuroscience 2009 in Chicago.

Source: UCLA.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD