Learning to use the internet could help elders avoid dementia

Saturday, October 31, 2009 by: S. L. Baker, features writer
Tags: dementia, health news, Natural News

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(NaturalNews) University of California at Los Angles (UCLA) scientists have found a way adults who are middle-aged and older can enhance brain function and thinking ability in just one week. This amazingly powerful prescription doesn't involve a drug. Instead, it's simply a matter of learning to surf the Web.

Research presented October 10th at the 2009 meeting of the Society for Neuroscience held in Chicago suggests older people with little Internet experience can trigger key centers in the brain that control decision making and complex reasoning in about seven days after they are taught how to use the Internet. What's the connection? Apparently, Internet training stimulates specific brain cell activity and could even potentially play a role in preventing dementia.

As some structural and functional changes occur in aging brains, there can be a decrease in neuron activity and a lessening of cognitive function. This can be the start of dementia. However, previous research has shown that mental stimulation much like that experienced by people who frequently use the Internet might be able to improve cognitive processing and even change the way the brain encodes new information -- and that could play a role in preventing dementia.

"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 study author Dr. Gary Small, a professor of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, in a statement to the press. Dr. Small is the author of iBrain, a book about how new technology impacts the brain and behavior.

The UCLA researchers worked with 24 neurologically normal research subjects between the ages of 55 and 78. Before the study, half the volunteers used the Internet each day but the other half had little experience surfing the Web. For the study, participants conducted Web searches while functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans measured the level of their cerebral blood flow and recorded the subtle brain-circuitry changes taking place while they were on the Internet.

After this first brain scan, the volunteers were asked to conduct searches on the Internet for one hour each day over a two week period. Specifically, the participants were told to use the Internet in order to explore and read information that would allow them to answer certain questions about designated topics. At the end of the two weeks, the research subjects were given another brain scan. Again, they were asked to perform an Internet search task during the fMRI. However, this time, they had different topics.

The brain scans of inexperienced Internet users demonstrated brain activity in regions controlling language, reading, visual abilities, memory and cognitive skills which are located in the brain's frontal, temporal, parietal, visual and posterior cingulate regions. The second round of brain scans, performed on these research subjects after they had practiced searching the Internet for a couple of weeks at home, showed activation of these same regions, as expected. But something else was going on, too, now that the volunteers knew how to search the Web. Surfing the Internet triggered areas of the brain called the middle frontal gyrus and inferior frontal gyrus that are known to be involved in working memory and making decisions. In fact, after practicing on the Internet at home for a few weeks, the volunteers who originally had minimal online experience now had brain activation patterns that looked very much like those in the group who were long-time Web users.

"The results suggest that searching online may be a simple form of brain exercise that might be employed to enhance cognition in older adults," Teena D. Moody, the study's first author and a senior research associate at the Semel Institute at UCLA, said in the media statement.

Another study just published as a new Policy Paper by the Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal and Economic Public Policy Studies (an international, non-profit organization that studies broad public policy issues related to governance, social and economic conditions), also found brain benefits from using the Internet. The researchers examined survey responses of 7,000 retired Americans 55 years or older provided by the Health and Retirement Study of the University of Michigan. The results? Using the Internet regularly was associated with a 20 percent decrease in symptoms of depression.

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