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Exploring the Internet nourishes our brains

October 26, 2009

by Mark Ollig

Do you spending endless hours searching and exploring the wealth of information over the Internet?

Your brain may be thanking you.

Some of us might recall reading for hours through the encyclopedia when we were young; “drinking in” the information which seemed to quench our brain’s thirst for knowledge.

I still owe a debt of gratitude to my parents, who brought the World Book Encyclopedia into our home and to the good people who provided the books in the Holy Trinity grade school and high school libraries.

Several scientists at Semel Institute at UCLA recently conducted a study and determined that after one week’s worth of using the Internet, measurable enhanced brain function abilities in middle aged and older adults were realized.

So, for any older folks out there still procrastinating about using the Internet – read on.

“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,” said Dr. Gary Small, who is the author of this UCLA study.

The scientists said they were able to trigger improvements to key points in the brain which control complex reasoning and decision-making during the study.

Twenty-four older adults between the ages of 55 and 78, volunteered for this study.

As much as your humble columnist would have liked to, he was not able to be one of the volunteers, since he did not meet the minimum age requirement.

I use the Internet constantly, so I have probably maxed out my brain benefits anyway.

Before the UCLA study, 12 of these adults used the Internet daily, and the remainder had very little or no experience using the Internet.

While undergoing magnetic resonance imaging scans which tracked brain activity by measuring blood flow through the brain, the participants performed various searches of information over the Internet.

These initial brain scans were recorded by the UCLA scientists.

After this scan, the folks participating in the study went home and performed Internet searches for one hour a day, for a total of seven days, during a two-week time period.

This volunteer group then received a second brain scan based on the same type of searching task, only with different search topics.

The first brain scan of participants with little Internet experience showed increased brain activity in regions controlling language, reading, memory, and visual abilities.

The second scan, completed after they carried out their Internet searches at home, showed activation of these same regions. This scan also showed improvement in working memory, and also in decision-making areas of the brain.

The results after the Internet use at home showed the volunteers with little to no Internet or online experience displayed brain activation patterns much like the ones found in the group of adults who used the Internet on a daily basis.

“The results suggest that searching online may be a simple form of brain exercise that might be employed to enhance cognition in older adults,” said Teena D Moody, a senior research associate at the Semel Institute at UCLA where this study was conducted.

It seems those countless crossword puzzles (which I consider a form of brain exercise) my grandmother worked on all her life truly made a difference; her mind was razor sharp, even during her last years.

Earlier research by UCLA had discovered online Internet searching resulted in a doubling of the increase in cognitive stimulation of brain activation in older adults with prior Internet experience, compared to those with little Internet experience.

These UCLA recent findings were presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, in Chicago Oct. 19.

The Society for Neuroscience is a nonprofit membership organization consisting of more than 38,000 scientists and physicians who study the human brain and nervous system.

The Society for Neuroscience is also the world’s largest organization dedicated to advancing the understanding of the brain and human nervous system.

It’s web site can be found at: www.sfn.org.

It also has a Facebook page, just enter “Society for Neuroscience” in the Facebook search box.

The UCLA Semel Institute web site is located at www.semel.ucla.edu.

A free Internet online crossword puzzle web site – which yours truly spent some time using – can be found at www.boatloadpuzzles.com/playcrossword.

Be sure to stop by the Web Site of The Week online forum, where that brainy Bits_blogger has been firing his greatly over-used cerebral neurons gathering stimulating information from the Society for Neuroscience.