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Googling Fights Dementia, Study Suggests

Ker Than
for National Geographic News
October 20, 2009
 
Using search engines may help stave off dementia and memory loss, a new brain-scan study suggests.

Scientists found that middle-aged and older adults with little Internet experience showed increased activity in key brain regions after surfing the Web for an hour a day for just two weeks (brain facts).

"It's not so much the Internet itself as it is the seeking of new information and keeping your brain stimulated with new things," said study team member Susan Bookheimer, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Playing Sudoku puzzles or immersing yourself in a new hobby, for example, has similar benefits, the team says. But Bookheimer says the Web is less likely to bore users after prolonged use.

"There's an infinite amount of information on the Internet every time you get on," Bookheimer said.

Google Searches Get Blood Pumping

Researchers recruited 24 volunteers between the ages of 55 to 78. Half of the participants said they were familiar with the Internet and with doing Web searches, while the other half professed to having very little Web experience.

To get a baseline, the scientists asked both groups, using nonworking keyboards and mice, to imagine they were doing Web searches while their brains were scanned with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) (see brain pictures). Researchers use fMRI scans to measure brain activity based on blood flow.

Compared to experienced Web users, the newbies' brains showed little activity, in the inferior frontal gyrus and middle frontal gyrus—areas important for short-term memory and decision-making, respectively.

(Related: "Brain Scans 'Read Minds' With Surprising Accuracy.")

Next, both groups were asked to use Google's search engine for one hour a day for two weeks, seeking answers to questions such as "What are the health benefits of walking everyday?" and "How do you find the best coffee beans?"

Brain scans taken after the experiment showed increased activity in novices' middle frontal gyri and inferior frontal gyri, just as in the brains of participants with Web experience.

(Put yourself to the test: Take our brain quiz.)

Googling Builds Brain Power?

The team speculates, but has not proven, that Web searching may help older people ward off dementia and slow cognitive decline.

It's not yet clear whether the brain improvements are temporary, the team says. The important lesson is to keep the mind engaged and challenged, however you do it.

"Becoming involved in new things and keeping your brain active are all hallmarks of activities that would tend to preserve your cognitive skills," Bookheimer said. "And these are all things that searching the Internet for new information really does."

Research to be presented this week at the annual Society for Neuroscience conference in Chicago.
 

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