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The Cutting Edge

Surf the Web, Sharpen the Brain

The Internet often is perceived as a tool that belongs predominantly to the younger generation. But Gary Small, M.D., director of the UCLA Center on Aging, is looking at how the Internet also can be used as a virtual exercise machine to keep the minds of older adults nimble and sharp.

His recent research with aging subjects shows some positive physiological effects. “Internet searching,” says Dr. Small, “engages complicated brain activity, which may help exercise and improve brain function.”

Dr. Small’s research involved volunteers between the ages of 55 and 76. Half of the group had experience searching the Web, and the other half did not. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the brain activity of volunteers was monitored as they performed online searches and book-reading tasks. During the book-reading exercises, all the participants showed significant activity in the parts of the brain that control language, reading, memory and visual abilities. But when doing Internet searches, the Web-savvy group also registered activity in the frontal, temporal and cingulated areas of the brain, which control decision making and complex reasoning.

Because searching the Internet involves a lot of choices about where to look and what to click, it exercises the brain even more than simple reading. “A simple, everyday task like searching the Web appears to enhance brain circuitry in older adults, demonstrating that we can continue to learn as we grow older,” Dr. Small says.

The research also shows that the more of this kind of exercise the better. “Our most-striking finding,” he says, “was that Internet searching appears to engage a greater extent of neural activity that is not activated during reading, but only in those with prior Internet experience.” Whether and to what extent other emerging technologies have similar positive effects will be the object of future research studies.

illustration: Courtesy of James Steinberg

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