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Searching the Internet is Good for Your Brain

One of the great fears associated with aging is losing one's mental acuity. For years, scientists have been telling seniors to do activities such as crossword puzzles to keep their brains sharp. Now some new research shows searching the Internet might also keep aging synapses firing. VOA's Rose Hoban reports.

Dr. Gary Small is a psychiatrist from the University of California at Los Angeles who has been studying the brains of aging adults for several decades. He says he wanted to see what happens when seniors used the Internet to search for information. To study the effects of Internet searching, he looked for people who had little or no experience with the online world. He calls these people "Internet-naïve."

"We knew they were out there. We knew they were older, because that's what the studies tell us," Small says. "Eventually, we did find about a dozen of them, and the next task was to just match them up with people who had had experience who are in the same age group and had the same level of education."

Small put the seniors into a brain scanner. The machine reveals how blood flows throughout the brain as the person inside it does a task.

"It tells us how well the brain cells are communicating," he says. "[It shows] whether they're functioning or not, whether they are active or not. We could see that throughout the brain."

While they were inside the scanner, Small had subjects do searches on the Internet. He also had them read pages from a book. He recorded their brain activity as they did each task.

"We found that reading a book activated parts of the brain that you would expect: the visual cortex in the back of the brain and areas that control language," he says.

"But, the Internet task had a much greater activation throughout the brain, but only in people who had prior Internet experience. So we saw, particularly in the frontal lobe, an area that controls complex reasoning and decision-making, we saw great increase in activation in the Internet-savvy experimental subjects versus those who are naïve."

In other words, the more experience seniors had using the Internet, the more exercise their brains got.

Small concludes that seniors shouldn't be afraid of going online, and in fact, surfing the Net might be a good way for them to stay sharp.

His research is published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, and in his new book iBrain.