Surfing the Net good for your brain

Surfing the web improves brain function in middle-aged and older adults, new research suggests : good news for a segment of the population that must deal with age-related weakening of brain activity.

A team of researchers from the University of California Los Angeles found that using Internet search functions stimulated activity in the frontal, temporal and cingulate parts of the brain, which are involved in decision-making and reasoning.

"The study results are encouraging, that emerging computerized technologies may have physiological effects and potential benefits for middle-aged and older adults," lead investigator Dr. Gary Small, said a professor at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA.

"Internet searching engages complicated brain activity, which may help exercise and improve brain function."

The research is the first of its kind to evaluate how using the Internet impacts brain activity, the researchers said.

Aging leads to a number of changes in the brain, including atrophy, reduced cell activity and an increase in plaque deposits, which all compromise cognitive function.

Studies have shown that keeping the mind engaged, even with crossword or Soduku puzzles, can improve brain health and preserve cognitive abilities.

For their study, Small and his team included 24 people between the ages of 55 and 76, half of whom had previous experience using the Internet.

The researchers monitored the subjects' brains with functional magnetic resonance imaging scans (fMRI) while they completed book reading and web searching assignments.

The scans monitor brain cell activity by measuring blood flow to the brain during cognitive tasks.

The researchers found that both reading and searching the Internet increased activity in parts of the brain that control language, reading, memory and visual abilities.

However, searching the Internet also boosted activity in the frontal, temporal and cingulate parts of the brain and that activity was two times more pronounced in those with experience using the web.

The researchers believe the Internet can boost brain function because users are constantly making decisions about where to click to get information.

The findings suggest that "our brains are sensitive and can continue to learn as we grow older," Small said.