From The Sunday Times
October 18, 2009
Web can help elderly surfers slow dementia
Ivy Bean, who is 104 years old, is the UK's oldest Tweeter (IvyBean104) on the social networking site, Twitter.
Jonathan Leake, Science Editor
GOOGLING is good for grandparents. Internet use can boost the brain activity of the elderly, potentially slowing or even reversing the age-related declines that can end in dementia, researchers have found. Using brain scans, they found the internet stimulated the mind more strongly than reading, and the effects continued long after an internet session had ended.
“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, professor of neuroscience and human behaviour at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). In the research, Small and his colleagues 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.
Small and his colleagues found the impacts 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, a UCLA researcher who co-wrote the report with Small. Moody believes internet searching challenges the brain more than reading because people need to perform several tasks at once. These include holding important information in their own memory while simultaneously assessing the information on screen and extracting the parts they want from graphics and words.
The research will be presented tomorrow at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Chicago, where the impacts of ageing on the brain are a big theme. 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.
It is only in recent years, however, that researchers have been able to use technologies such as fMRI to observe the brain in action and measure the changes that come with age. What they have found is that as people age, their brains undergo structural and functional changes, often including atrophy, reductions in cell activity and increases in deposits of insoluble protein. All of these can reduce cognitive function.
In Britain, for example, around 700,000 people suffer from dementia, a condition in which so much of the brain has died that function is severely impaired.
Small and Moody’s argument is 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. Small said: “Our most striking finding was that internet searching appears to engage a greater extent of neural circuitry that is not activated during reading.” Other neuroscientists support the idea of exercising the brain but question the benefit of spending too much time on the internet.
My source: CI list thanks to Michael Gurstein (with additional editing and links)