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Searching the Internet may stimulate and help improve brain function more than reading a book.

Researchers at the University of California Los Angeles have found that searching the web triggers centers in the brain that control decision-making and complex reasoning in middle-aged and older adults. But while web browsing may spark more neurons than mere book-reading, the study says, this only occurs in those with previous Internet experience.

(Left) This is your brain on books. (Right) This is your brain on Internet.
Image courtesy UCLA.

The study, which the researchers claim is the first of its kind, is currently in press at the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry and will appear in an upcoming issue.

As the brain ages, it's prone to atrophy and reduced cell activity. Doing a bit of "hard thinking" is thought to help keep the mind in shape. Brain-improving mental exercises typically take the form of doing crossword puzzles, learning to play the piano, or taking up a new hobby where new skills are required. Being a deft hand at searching the Internet also appears to put the mind through its paces.

The UCLA team worked with 24 "neurologically normal" volunteers between the ages of 55 and 76. Half had experience using the web, the other half did not.

Participants performed Internet searches and book-reading tasks while a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine scanned their noggins.

All showed significant brain activity while reading, using regions of the brain that control language, reading, memory, and visual abilities.

The effect of Internet searches on the brain were not so universal, however. Each participant showed about the same brain activity they demonstrated while reading books, but the web-savvy also registered activity in the frontal, temporal, and cingulate areas of the brain, controlling decision-making and complex reasoning.

"Our most striking finding was that Internet searches appear to engage a greater extent of neural circuitry that is not activated during reading – but only those with prior Internet experience," said principal investigator Gary Small, a professor at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA.

The difference between Internet veterans and technopoops was measurably two-fold. A voxel is the smallest unit detectable by an fMRI machine (like a 3-D pixel, typically representing a cube of brain tissue about 2-4 millimeters on each side.) The scientists found web-savvy participants sparked 21,782 voxels, compared to 8,646 voxels in those with less Internet experience.

Small suggests the inexperienced may register less brain activity because they haven't yet figured out the right strategies required to perform a successful search. In other words, their Google-fu is weak.

"With more time on the Internet, they may demonstrate the same brain activation patterns as the more experienced group," Small said.

In the meantime, here's another bit of pretext for techies to be so smug. ®

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