The Internet has gotten a bad rap for many reasons. It lets destructive images and people into our homes, has contributed to children’s sedentary lifestyle, and has made the spread of false information very simple. Well, if you were looking for a reason to like the Internet again, we’ve got it for you.
A recent study done at the University of California at Los Angeles shows that the Internet can be used to alter our brains. That may sound scary, but the study actually found positive changes in older brains as a result of Internet-based training. The study was done with participants aged 55 to 78. The brain within that age range tends to decrease, even decay, in its activity, in ways that affect cognitive function.
Research has shown that stimulating the brain with activities like some uses of the Internet can enhance brain efficiency. Dr. Gary Small, the study author and professor of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, made the following statement:
“We found that for older people with minimal experience, performing Internet searches for even a relatively short period of time can change brain activity patterns and enhance function.”
Two groups of twelve otherwise healthy and neurologically normal participants had two brain scans (through an MRI) performed. One group had very little experience with the Internet, while the other group was more accustomed to it. The MRI first scan was taken before the volunteers performed any Internet tasks. The second was performed after the Internet use. They were asked to perform simple Internet searches to find answers to specific questions presented.
“The first scan of participants with little Internet experience showed brain activity in the regions controlling language, reading, memory and visual abilities. The second brain scan of these participants, conducted after the home practice searches, demonstrated activation of these same regions, but there was also activity in… areas of the brain known to be important in working memory and decision-making.”
Researchers believe that it could be a matter of days for a brain that does not have much experience with the Internet to catch up with the activity of the brain of an older person who has plenty of Internet search experience. Teena D. Teena D. Moody, the study’s first author and UCLA researcher, explained:
“When performing an online search, the ability to hold important information in working memory and to take away the important points from competing graphics and words is essential.”
This is a significant finding, as the implications are numerous. Could we actually use the Internet to help prevent the deterioration and decay that many live with in their later years? Would these results have any impact on diseases like Alzheimer’s? Further studies will be conducted on young people in order to see specific ways to ensure increased brain activity. For those of us who have older relatives, this study is one that generates hope that getting older does not have to mean loss of cognitive function. It may not be something we can completely stop, but it appears we may be able to slow it down.