The researchers worked with 24 men and women aged between 55 and 78. Half of them had used the internet a lot; the others had little experience.
At the start of the research, they were asked to conduct a series of internet searches while their brains were scanned using a technique known as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). This measures changes in blood flow around the brain to work out which parts are the most and least active.
After the initial scan, participants went home and used the internet to carry out specified tasks for an hour a day at least seven times over the following fortnight. Then they had a second brain scan, again while searching the internet.
The impact began immediately, with the first scan demonstrating brain activity in regions controlling language, reading, memory and vision.
By the time of the second scan, however, the activated areas had spread to include the frontal gyrus and inferior frontal gyrus, areas known to be important in working memory and decision-making. The researchers suggest internet searching stimulates brain cells and pathways, making them more active.
“Searching online may be a simple form of brain exercise that might be employed to enhance cognition in older adults,” said Teena Moody, one of the researchers who will be presenting this work at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Chicago tomorrow.
It has long been known that as people age, their brain functions and abilities also change. In many respects these changes are beneficial — verbal and social skills tend to improve until at least late middle age, for example. In other areas there can be declines. One of the best known is mathematics, as shown by the number of mathematicians and physicists who do their best work early and then struggle to match their youthful performances.
In Britain around 700,000 people suffer from dementia, a condition in which so much of the brain has died that function is severely impaired.
The researchers argue that brains are similar to muscles, in that the more they are exercised, the healthier they become. So, activities such as internet use, reading and socialising can slow or reverse normal age-related declines.
Interestingly they reckon that internet searching appears to engage a greater extent of neural circuitry that is not activated during reading. So now you know! Carry on surfing!