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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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