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Internet use may help you search and find...a healthier mind

October 19, 2009 |  4:32 pm

Here's an inducement for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and fellow seniors who've stayed off the information superhighway: if you take the on-ramp now, you'll get extra benefits in the form of improved cognitive dexterity and better short-term memory. So says a study presented today at the Society for Neuroscience's annual meeting in Chicago.

 A team of UCLA researchers scanned the brains of 24 older adults--half of them Internet savvy, the others not--as subjects performed a task that simulated an Internet search. After providing online training for those with little Internet familiarity, the researchers instructed subjects to spend at least seven hours over the next two weeks conducting practice Internet searches, exploring websites and reading information on a range of questions. When they returned, the subjects' brains were again scanned by functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging machines, which detect blood flow throughout the brain's many regions, as the subjects conducted another round of simulated searches.

Researchers found that for the Internet-"naive" subjects, two weeks of cruising the information super highway had revved up brain function markedly. Before they had been trained to conduct Internet searches, the newbies--who had an average age of 66.8 years--had used many of the regions of brain associated with judgment, visual and spatial perception, and higher-order reasoning to perform their faux-search task. But a scan of their brains found that after two weeks of honing their search-skills, the newbies used those brain regions as well as several others when performing the faux-search task.

And not just any regions: Their brains showed activation in portions of the superior and medial frontal gyrus and the inferior frontal gyrus. Those are regions of the brain key to decision-making, working memory and interference resolution--the skill of fending off distracting intrusions and allowing necessary ones while "bookmarking" one's place in a task to return.

After the training, the brain function of the Internet-naive adults during the task looked pretty much like that of the Internet-savvy older adult subjects, whose ages averaged 62.4 years. But the Internet-savvy adults actually seemed to be dogging it on the second try, using less brainpower  than they had the first time to perform the faux-search task. That's probably because they had recognized the task the second time around, and found it easier to do, researchers said.

UCLA neuroscientist Gary Small, author of the book iBrain and one of the study's authors, said the study makes clear that for older adults looking to sharpen their memories and boost their cognitive fitness, the answer is at their fingertips. Small, who researches memory function and conducts seminars to improve it, has argued that society's growing reliance on technology is likely helping to "rewire" our brains in ways that are not fully understood. While he says heavy reliance on technological conveniences can be a significant cause of inattention, mastering new information technologies can be a powerful means of brain-building.

-- Melissa Healy 

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Comments (5)

I am back to school, after 20 years. For the last 3 months, I have been working on the internet, more than ever. I feel my brain is getting sharp. I am getting more confidence. I am 47, and I am taking Business Management at Phoenix University in Pasadena, 3rd year.

I find the internet to be a technological marvel.

Luria, over 30 years ago described the growth of associative neurons in the brain because of use; electron micography shows these networks of neuronal growth with so-called mental gymnastics.

I believe this is exactly correct.

My Mom always did crossword and other word, logic, and math puzzles "to keep her brain sharp". She lived to 93 and had all her wits around her. I'm 63 now, and look forward to at least thirty more years of learning on the internet and enjoying every minute of it very much. Plus, there's a half dozen daily crosswords to do.

I have some good and not-so-great reactions to this article.

The content of the article is fascinating and I thank you all for sharing this with the world. Very cool study. I just happened to be looking at your site for information on the Windows 7 announcement and this came up on the list of recommended news reads, and it caught my eye. My compliments to finding this story and the website designer for the LA times for making interesting links easy to find. 'Tis one of the great things about the internet, no? ^_^

However, I regrettably have a slightly frustrating complaint to make too... the author of this news article, Melissa Healy, did not properly cite the research article at all. In fact, the "study" link above simply takes you to a gigantic, 196-page Adobe .pdf file which lists the times and locations of hundreds of seminars, and the provided link doesn't even hyperlink to the presentation (#382.3 on page 86)! Again, NOT a big deal in this case(although in the academic world this could have gotten Melissa charged with plagiarism), but it would be appreciated if LA Times could please fix the citation, or the link. If other news sources (such as Medical News Today .com) can cite the article, why can't LA Times? *shrug* I'll get off my soap box, but please in the future link/cite your sources properly! Got to keep the internet-chain-of-information-linkage going, yes? :-)

Anyways... for those interested in viewing the actual study for further reading, here is the citation for it:

Moody, T., Gaddipati, H., Small, G., & Bookheimer, S. (2009). "Neural activation patterns in older adults following Internet training." Poster Session 382.3/GG2, Human Cognition and Behavior: Aging Studies. Presented Mon, Oct 19, at Neuroscience 2009 in Chicago.

This article is currently under peer-review for the American Journal of Medicine. However, the center responsible for the research in this study can be found and contacted here if you wish:


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