scientists already knew that performing online searches increased brain
activation, by more than twofold, in older adults with prior computer experience
when compared to those with little computer know-how. For a recap of those
previous findings as reported by Experience! just click on
Searching for Brain Health.
Now, new findings by the UCLA team suggest that older, minimally experienced
computer users may match the brain activity levels seen in their experienced
counterparts after spending only a week online.
The subjects of the study, which was described last month at a meeting of the
Society for Neuroscience in Chicago, were 24 neurologically normal adults, ages
55 to 78, half of whom habitually used the Internet on a daily basis and half of
whom had little computer experience. The two groups were similar in terms of
age, gender, and educational background.
The researchers had the participants conduct web searches while undergoing
brain scans to detect brain-circuitry responses during the activity. Following
their initial scans, the participants were sent home with instructions to search
the Internet one hour per day on a total of seven days over a two-week time
During the searches, participants used the Internet as their resource to
answer questions on a variety of subjects. To succeed, they needed to identify
and visit websites where they could read material pertinent to their
Afterward, a second round of brain scans was administered while participants
performed the same Internet search activity, except in different topic areas.
Whereas the first scans had shown significant differences in brain activation
between the two groups, the second scans revealed quite similar patterns.
Initial scans of the inexperienced subjects displayed expected activity in
regions of the brain involving vision, reading, language, and memory abilities.
second scans, after a short period of home practice, showed all of that and
more: activity in the middle frontal gyrus and inferior frontal gyrus. In other
words, also stimulated were parts of the brain involved in working memory and
decision-making skills. Researchers noted that these results tie in with the act
of web searching since one's ability to hold relevant information in the working
memory and to seize key facts from contending graphics and text are important
during the task.
The aging human brain characteristically undergoes physical and functional
changes ranging from atrophy and declines in neural activity to an increased
presence of amyloid placques and tau tangles, all or any of which can affect
cognition. The results of this study suggest that online training can promote
desirable brain activation patterns and may bolster older adult brain
functioning. The type of scan used in the study was functional magnetic
resonance imaging (fMRI), a procedure that records blood-flow levels within the
brain during cognitive activity. As most fMRI studies involve a small number of
subjects, the planning for further research is already under way.
In summary, the UCLA researchers stated that their results suggest online
searching as a possible form of brain exercise that is simple to undertake and
potentially beneficial to cognitive function in older adults.
Editor's note: Related topics such as atrophy, brain cell activity, amyloid,
tau, and fMRI are addressed at length in the American Senior Fitness Association
(SFA) Brain Fitness for Older Adults professional education program. For
details about the course, please click on