Oct. 19, 2009 -- Surfing the Internet may be the latest way to teach an old dog new tricks.
A study shows older adults who learn to use the Internet to search for information experience a surge of activity in key decision-making and reasoning centers of the brain.
"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," says researcher Gary Small, MD, a professor of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, in a news release.
As people get older, a variety of both structural and functional changes can occur in the brain that can reduce activity and impair function. Previous studies have shown that mental stimulation through brain training activities can increase the efficiency of cognitive processing and slow this decline in brain function.
Researchers say the results suggest that Internet training and searching online may qualify as a simple brain training activity to enhance cognitive function in older adults.
In the study, presented today at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Chicago, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare brain activity in different regions of the brain in 24 healthy adults between the ages of 55 and 78.
Half of the participants used the Internet daily and the other half had very little experience with the Internet.
The participants were instructed on how to perform Internet searches while fMRI scans recorded levels of brain activity. After the initial scan, the participants were sent home and conducted Internet searchers for one hour a day for seven days over a two-week period.
The practice searchers involved using the Internet to answer questions about a variety of topics by visiting different web sites and obtaining information.
After the two-week period ended, the participants received a second brain scan while performing the same Internet stimulation task as during the first scan but with different topics.
The results showed that not only were the same regions of the brain that control language, reading, memory, and visual abilities activated in the second scan as the first, but two additional activity centers were activated in the second scan among those who were new to the Internet.
Researchers say the two regions, the middle frontal gyrus and inferior frontal gyrus, are known to be involved in working memory and decision-making skills. When performing an Internet search, people make use of the ability to hold information in working memory and extract important points among distracting graphics and words.
The results suggest that it may only take a few days of brain training activity like Internet searching for brain activity activation to reach the same levels found in those with years of Internet experience.