Move over pinochle, Web surfing stimulates aging brains

UCLA study finds Net searching triggers key centers in the brain that control decision making and complex reasoning in computer-savvy middle-aged and older adults.

Brain activity from Internet search
Functional MRI brain scans show how searching the Internet dramatically engages brain neural networks (in red). The image on the left displays brain activity while reading a book; the image on the right displays activity while engaging in an Internet search. UCLA Newsroom

The University of California at Los Angeles this week gave us the perfect antidote to Nick Carr's musings in The Atlantic about how the Internet is turning us into multitasking scatterbrains with diminishing attention spans.

A group of scientists found that searching the Internet doesn't make computer-savvy, middle-aged and older adults stupid. It actually triggers key centers in the brain that control decision making and complex reasoning. In other words, we might not have to resort to word puzzles and pinochle to fend off senility.

The study, reportedly the first of its kind to assess the impact of Internet searching on brain performance, will be published in an upcoming issue of 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," said principal investigator Dr. Gary Small, a professor at UCLA's Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. "Internet searching engages complicated brain activity, which may help exercise and improve brain function."

Researchers tested out 24 volunteers between the ages of 55 and 76. Half were experienced Web searchers, the other half had no experience. The participants performed Web searches and book-reading tasks while undergoing MRI scans.

All participants showed significant brain activity during the book-reading tasks. But there was a major difference between the groups when doing the Internet searches, according to a UCLA press release. "While all the participants demonstrated the same brain activity that was 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."

So while we, the digerati, may end up easily distracted, fat due to physical inactivity, and in chronic pain due to gadget-related repetitive stress injuries, at least we'll be more likely to keep our wits about us.

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