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Study: Google does a brain good

  • Story Highlights
  • Web-savvy group had double neural activation than less experienced counterparts
  • Web-savvy older adults had greater activation in front part of brain
  • That area of brain controls decision making and complex reasoning
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By Madison Park
CNN
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(CNN) -- Can Google make you smarter? Is the more you Yahoo, the better? A new study suggests that searching online could be beneficial for the brain.

Searching online triggers areas of the brain that control decision-making and complex reasoning.

A study at the University of California, Los Angeles, measured brain activity of older adults as they searched the Web.

"There's so much interest in exercising our minds as we age," said the researcher, Dr. Gary Small, a professor at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA. "One result of this study is that these technologies are not all bad. They may be good in keeping our brains active."

To study what brains look like when people are searching the Internet, Small recruited two groups of people: one that had minimal computer experience and another that was Web savvy.

Members of the technologically advanced group had more than twice the neural activation than their less experienced counterparts while searching online. Activity occurred in the region of the brain that controls decision-making and complex reasoning, according to Small's study, which appears in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

Small said he can't pinpoint why there was more brain activity in the experienced users.

"The way I theorized is that when we are confronted with new mental challenges, we don't know how to deal with it," he said. "We don't engage neural circuits. Once we figure out a strategy, we engage those circuits. "

In the study, 24 people were divided into the two groups, who were similar in age ranging from 55 to 78 years old, sex and educational achievement. Their only difference was their technological experience.

The number of people in the study was small, "but adequate to see a difference between the groups. It was so significantly different," Small said.

The subjects went into the magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, scanner, which is like a large tunnel. The MRI monitored their brain activity while the subjects strapped on goggles, through which they saw a book page or an Internet search page.

They were given search tasks such as finding out how to choose a car or looking up the benefits of eating chocolate or drinking coffee. They had buttons and keyboards to conduct a simulated online search.

Their other task was to read pages laid out like a book.

"The bottom line is, when older people read a simulated book page, we see areas of the brain activated that you'd expect, the visual cortex, and areas that control language and reading," he said. "When they search on the Internet, they use the same areas, but there was much greater activation particularly in the front part, which controls decision-making and complex reasoning. But it was only for the people who had previous experience with the Internet." Interactive: See MRIs of study participants' brain activity »

Liz Zelinski, a professor of gerontology and psychology at the University of Southern California, said the findings about the brain activity differences aren't surprising and offered this analogy: "If you wanted to study how hard people can exercise, and you take people that already exercise and people that don't exercise, aren't they going to be different to start out?"

Research has shown that as the brain ages, its structure and function also changes. Such changes have been linked to declines in brain speed, control and working memory and other cognitive abilities.

Taking on mentally challenging tasks could improve brain health, according to recent studies. Brain teasers, such such as Nintendo's Brain Age game and computer programs are geared towards boomers and aging adults. And everyone has different recommendations from crossword puzzles to Sodoku to video games as ways to keep the brain sharp, Zelinski said.

Her recommendation: "Do something hard and challenging that's fairly unusual for them to do, something they haven't done before. The idea is it should be difficult. If you do a crossword puzzle all your life, it's not going to be challenging for you."

For many aging Americans, learning how to use a computer is a challenge.

The barrier for most seniors is the disinterest and intimidation, said Tobey Gordon Dichter, the founder of a nonprofit group, Generations on Line, a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania-based organization that provides instructions and encourages seniors to get on the Web.

"It does so much for the mind," Dichter said about searching online. "It allows for the mind to take where you where you want to go. It's on-demand information."

But it's difficult at first, she added. "When you're undertaking new frustrating tasks, like learning a language or how to use a computer, you're pushing those neurons."

The Pew Internet and American Life Project reported in a 2006 sample survey that about 32 percent of people who are 65 and older used the Internet.

Jewel Hall, 71, surfs the net on her laptop every other day. The Maryland resident said searching online forces her to think.

"It'll make you think, 'Do I have the right thing in there?' " Hall said. "Should I try to put something else in there? It makes you think, "What can I put in there to make the right things come up?' You do use your brain a lot."

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Small has written a book, "iBrain," which examines the impact of technology on the human brain and said he wants to conduct further studies on the effects of technology on the organ.

Small encourages older adults to learn how to use search engines and said, "This could be exercising their brain and their neural circuitry in a way that's helpful."

All About NeurologyAging and the ElderlyInternet

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