Using the Internet makes people smarter, study finds

UCLA research finds that online searching can increase brain activity in older adults

Could it be that the Internet actually -- gasp! -- makes you smarter?

That's the word from a team of scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, who reported this week that new Internet users between the ages of 55 and 78 improved their scores on decision-making and complex reasoning tests after just seven days online. The researchers said they found that surfing the Web seemed to stimulate neural activity and possibly enhance cognitive functioning in those mature Internet beginners.

Just a week online increased brain activity twofold in the oldest Internet users studied, according to the scientists.

"The results suggest that searching online may be a simple form of brain exercise that might be employed to enhance cognition in older adults," said Teena D. Moody, a UCLA senior research associate, in a statement.

The researchers reported that using the Internet triggers key centers in the brain that usually atrophy with age and lack of use. However, when people begin using the Internet, it positively affects cognitive functions and alters the way the brain encodes new information.

"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," said Gary Small, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA and the study's author, in a statement.

The UCLA team studied 24 adults; half of the participants were daily users of the Internet, and the other half had very little online experience.

At the start of the program, the volunteers did online searches for information while undergoing MRI scans that recorded brain circuitry changes. They then went home and conducted Internet searches for an hour a day for seven days over a two-week period.

After the two weeks were up, the participants underwent a second brain scan. According to the researcher, the volunteers who had little Internet experience showed a marked improvement in areas of the brain that control memory and decision-making.

The UCLA team now plans to investigate the effects of online search on younger adults.

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