Web Surfing Boosts Older Brains

If you're trying to keep your brain humming as you age, you could do worse than to park yourself in front of your computer and surf the Internet. Long considered the bastion of the young and tech-savvy, the Internet has been shunned by a significant percentage of older adults who didn't grow up having it as a presence in their homes or offices. But new data reveals that besides being entertaining, surfing the web actually offers concrete neurological benefits to the over-55 crowd, who tend to experience neurological changes such as brain atrophy, less cell activity and an increase in plaques that can hamper cognitive function.      

A recent study conducted at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA showed that older people were able to change the activity patterns in their brains after just one week of Web surfing. Scientists recruited 24 people between the ages of 55 and 78, half of whom used the Internet daily and the other half of whom had minimal exposure. While surfing the Web, the volunteers were given functional magnetic resonance imaging scans, which track subtle changes in the brain by measuring blood flow during mental tasks. Then over the next two weeks, the volunteers surfed the Internet for an hour a day at home on seven specific days. They then came back for a second scan, during which the newbies' brain changes were revealed: Participants who previously were unfamiliar with the Internet now showed brain activation in areas controlling decision making and working memory, similar to the brain activity of the Internet-savvy subjects.

Apparently, rather than just being an excellent way to kill time, surfing the Web is a form of exercise for the brain, say the UCLA researchers. Why? Skilled Web surfers need to be able to sift through mountains of information and extract and recall important points in a limited amount of time. And it's an exercise that bestows measurable benefits after just a few days of practice. But Internet rookies should use their newfound skills wisely, the study team cautions: Boning up on world affairs is great, while learning how to gamble online may be destructive. Next up for the researchers at UCLA are studies that focus on brain activation in younger Web users.