Images showing brain scans of those with minimal prior Internet experience compared to those with a lot of web experience
Scans of the brains of adults who had been immersed in the internet for the first time found that activity in parts of the brain used in memory and decision-making had increased.
Senior research associate Teena D. Moody, one of the authors of the study, said: “The results suggest that searching online may be a simple form of brain exercise that might be employed to enhance cognition in older adults.”
The research, performed by psychiatrists and neuroscientists at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), looked at the brain circuitry of adults between the ages of 55 and 78 who had rarely used the internet, compared with those who used it daily.
They then had the volunteers perform web searches while undergoing brain scans called functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI, which recorded the changes in brain activity.
After that, the test subjects went home, and were asked to use the internet for an hour a day, using web searches to answer questions on a variety of topics by reading different websites.
A week later they returned to the lab and were scanned again as they carried out a different set of internet searches.
In the first scan, the brains of the subjects who were inexperienced with the internet showed activity in the areas linked to language, reading, memory and visual abilities.
But in the second scan, the middle frontal gyrus and inferior frontal gyrus were also lit up – the parts associated with working (short-term) memory and decision-making.
The brains of the regular internet users already showed activity in these regions, and researchers were startled to note that it only took a few days for inexperienced users to catch up.
Gary Small, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA's Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior and another of the trial’s authors, said: “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.”
As the trial was small – just 24 people – more research is needed to confirm the results. Also, further studies to establish the effects on younger brains, as well as to determine what sort of web use has the greatest cognitive effects, are also needed.
The effects of technology on brain function have been questioned recently. The director of the Royal Institution, Professor Susan Greenfield, has linked social networking sites with loss of concentration in children. She has also blamed text messaging for the increase in attention deficit disorders, computers for fuelling the obesity crisis, and video games for the financial crisis.