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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Internet and Brain Function

This Is your Brain on the Internet

My first thought when seeing the headling of this story immediately made me think the negative. With children spending increasing amounts of time on the Internet playing games and doing mindless Facebook postings, one would think the world is getting stupid.

According to an UCLA Neurology study which involved 24 neurologically normal volunteers between the ages of 55 and 78, Internet activity may in fact be benificial to the neurological function of the brains of older people.

Dr. Gary Small, study author and professor of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, reports "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."

Participants in the UCLA Neurology study performed Web searches while undergoing (fMRI) scans of their brain. The fMRI (Functional MRI) scans were able to record the subtle brain-circuitry changes experienced during the study by tracking brain activity by measuring the level of blood flow in the brain during cognitive tasks. As the ULCA Neurology study on the Internet and the Human Brain involved a small number of people, more research on this topic is needed.

It is hoped this UCLA Neurology study of the effects of the Internet on the Human Brain could open some pathways to the prevention of Deteriative Brain disorders such as Alzheimers Disease.

Teena D. Moody, the UCLA Neurology study's first author and UCLA researcher, 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 participants performed Web searches while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, which recorded the subtle brain-circuitry changes experienced during this activity. This type of scan tracks brain activity by measuring the level of blood flow in the brain during cognitive tasks. While the study involves a small number of people and more research on this topic is needed, small study sizes are typical of fMRI-based research.

After the initial brain scan, subjects went home and conducted Internet searches for one hour a day for a total of seven days over a two-week period. These practice searches involved using the web to answer questions about various topics by exploring different websites and reading information. Participants then received a second brain scan using the same Internet simulation task, but with different topics.

The first scan of participants with little Internet experience showed brain activity in the regions controlling language, reading, memory and visual abilities. The second brain scan of these participants, conducted after the home practice searches, demonstrated activation of these same regions, but there was also activity in the middle frontal gyrus and inferior frontal gyrus – areas of the brain known to be important in working memory and decision-making.

Thus, after Internet training at home, participants with minimal online experience displayed brain activation patterns very similar to those seen in the group of savvy Internet users.

Additional studies will be needed to address the impact of the Internet on younger individuals and help identify aspects of online searching that generate the greatest levels of brain activation.

The findings were presented Oct. 19 at the meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Chicago, Illinois.

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