Source: Sunday Times
Date: 14 October 2008

Internet beats books for improving the mind, say scientists

By Richard Alleyne, Science Correspondent

Browsing the internet is better than reading books for boosting the brain power of middle-aged and older adults, new research has found.

Scientists discovered that searching the world wide web exercised the mind far more than reading and was similar to completing crosswords and puzzles.

Brain scans showed that going online stimulated larger parts of the brain than the relatively passive activity of reading a novel or non-fiction book.

It was so stimulating that the authors of the study believe it could actually help people maintain healthier brains into their old age.

"The study results are encouraging, that emerging computerised technologies may have physiological effects and potential benefits for middle-aged and older adults," said principal investigator Dr Gary Small, a professor at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at University of California.

"Internet searching engages complicated brain activity, which may help exercise and improve brain function." The study, the first of its kind to assess the impact of internet searching on brain performance, is published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

As the brain ages, a number of changes occur which impact on performance, such as general wasting and reductions in cell activity.

The team found that for computer-savvy middle-aged and older adults, searching the internet triggers key centres in the brain that control decision-making and complex reasoning.

They worked with 24 research volunteers between the ages of 55 and 76 with healthy brain function.

Half of the study participants had experience searching the internet, while the other half had no experience. Age, educational level and gender were similar between the two groups.

Both sets performed web searches and read books while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, which recorded the subtle brain-circuitry changes experienced during these activities.

This type of scan tracks the intensity of cell responses in the brain by measuring the level of blood flow during tasks.

All study participants showed significant brain activity during the book-reading task, demonstrating use of the regions controlling language, reading, memory and visual abilities, which are located in the temporal, parietal, occipital and other areas of the brain.

But internet searches revealed a major difference between the two groups. While all participants demonstrated the same brain activity that was seen during the book-reading, the web-savvy group also registered activity in the frontal, temporal and cingulate areas of the brain, which control decision-making and complex reasoning.

"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," said Dr Small, who is also the director of UCLA's Memory and Ageing Research Centre.

Volunteers with prior experience of the internet registered a twofold increase in brain activation while web searching when compared with those with little internet experience.

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