A new study is raising important questions about the brain’s ability to remain active and regenerate in later life and whether Web searching can stimulate brain activity in middle-aged and older adults.1 The study, which was conducted by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), found that the neural circuitry of middle-aged and older brains activates when searching online, a plasticity that has until now only been attributed to younger brains.
Principal investigator, Gary W. Small, MD, director of the UCLA Memory and Aging Research Center at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, notes that “this is the first study to demonstrate significant differences in brain activation during a common computer task according to prior experience with that task.”
The study measured brain activity with functional MRI (fMRI) scans in 24 study participants aged 55 to 76 years. Participants were split into 2 groups—12 experienced Internet users and 12 inexperienced Internet users—similar in age, education, and sex. The fMRI scans recorded subtle brain changes as participants performed Web searches and book-reading tasks.
Participants showed significant brain activity during the book-reading task, which activates the temporal, parietal, and occipital parts of the brain. Internet searching activated the same regions of the brain as book reading, but cerebral blood flow was measured in the complex reasoning and decision-making regions of the brain: the frontal and cingulate areas. When compared with participants with no experience, Internet searchers with experience demonstrated double the brain activity measured in voxels.
Part of the inspiration for this study stems from Dr Small’s recent book, iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind.2 While writing the book, he realized “that no previous study had looked at brain function during the common computer task of searching online.” The book explores how new technology is changing our lives as well as our brains. It is Small’s hope that studies like this “open a whole new area of neuroscience that improves our understanding of the impact of technology on brain function.” He plans to publish follow-up data next year from participants in the present study, who “were asked to practice Internet searching for an hour each day and return to the laboratory for a second fMRI scan.” Small’s team has just begun analyzing the data to “see how quickly an older brain’s neural circuitry changes with practice.”