From Our 2008 Archives

Surfing the Web Stimulates Older Brains

Web-Savvy Baby Boomers, Seniors Plumb More Regions of the Brain During Internet Searches

By Julie Edgar
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

Oct. 14, 2008 -- Googling is good for Grandpa and Grandma, says a new study by researchers at UCLA.

The study, which looked at brain activity during web searches, resulted in a fascinating finding: Middle-aged to older adults who know their way around the Internet had more stimulation of decision-making and complex reasoning areas of the brain than peers who were new to web surfing.

What's more, reading didn't stimulate the same number of brain areas as Internet searching.

The UCLA study, funded by the Parvin Foundation, involved 24 adults from 55 to 78 years old, half of whom had experience searching the web from once a day to many times a day. The other half reported using the Internet never to once a month. The participants didn't have any neurological conditions such as dementia and were similar in age and educational level.

In order to measure brain activity during reading and web searches, the 24 adults underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans while separately performing both activities, either a new Internet search or reading text on a computer screen that was formatted to look like a book.

While reading stimulated the same areas of the brain in both groups, those who regularly searched the Internet showed twice the increase in brain activity when performing the new Internet search than their counterparts, especially in the areas of the brain that control decision making and complex reasoning.

“The study results are encouraging, that emerging computerized technologies may have physiological effects and potential benefits for middle-aged and older adults,” says principal investigator Gary Small, a professor at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA and director of the campus' Memory and Aging Research Center.

“Our most striking finding was that Internet searching appears to engage a greater extent of neural circuitry that is not activated during reading -- but only in those with prior Internet experience.”

Small concludes that the more experience the subject had in searching, the greater it engaged a person's brain.

Although Internet use has increased among all age groups in the U.S., far fewer boomers and seniors search the Web daily, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project. The report, released in August, says 40% of people 50 to 64 years old and 27% of adults 65 and older are getting information online every day, compared to about 55% of those 18 to 49. The study surveyed 2,251 adults 18 and older from April 8 to May 11 of this year.

Small acknowledges that the less web-savvy people might not have grasped the strategies for accessing information online, but with more time “may demonstrate the same brain activation patterns as the more experienced group.”

The studywill be published in an upcoming issue of the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

SOURCES: Gary W. Small, MD, Teena D. Moody, PhD, Susan Y. Bookheimer, PhD: “Brain Activation During Internet Searching.” UCLA department of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences. Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. Mary S. Easton Center for Alzheimer's Disease Research. UCLA Center on Aging. Gary W. Small, MD. Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, August 2008.

©2008 WebMD, LLC. All Rights Reserved.