This small study doesn't confirm that using an Internet search engine like Google is healthy for the brain. But some middle-aged and older subjects who spent time searching for information on the Internet did show signs of more brain activity than those who simply engaged in reading.
"Just a simple, everyday computer task seems to be activating neural circuits," said study author Dr. Gary W. Small, director of the University of California, Los Angeles, Center on Aging. "It's possible that this is something that strengthens our brains as we do it."
Small and his colleagues launched the study to see how brain activity differs in people who are accustomed to using computers and those who are new to them. In the larger picture, Small said, he wants to understand how the brains of younger people might be wired differently from those of older people because of long-term exposure to computers.
The researchers decided to look at middle-aged and older people, because more of them aren't familiar with computers.
In the study, the researchers recruited 24 people aged 55 to 76. Half had extensive experience with computer searches, while the other half did not.
The researchers put the subjects in an MRI machine and tried to replicate the experience of Googling. While the subjects didn't have keyboards because the space inside a scanner is small, they could see a computer screen through goggles and use a keypad to move a cursor.
Researchers told the subjects to search for information about topics such as the health benefits of chocolate, the locations of nature walks and car-shopping tips. The scanner measured their brain activity as they searched.
The findings were expected to be published in a future issue of the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. Small also discussed the study in his newly released book, "iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind."
Brain activity was much higher in the subjects who had previous experience with Internet searches. Much of the activity "occurred in the frontal lobe, which is involved in complex reasoning and decision-making," Small said.
The Internet search-experienced subjects also showed more brain activity when they searched on the Internet than when they simply read text.
But the subjects who weren't acquainted with Internet searching picked up the skills and boosted their brain activity after searching an hour a day for five days, Small said.
It's possible that Internet searching could be good for the brain, he said. "There's a lot of interest in brain fitness and exercising our brains to protect them from future decline. One possibility is that a simple task like searching on the Internet activates our brains and may be protecting them in some way."
Still, "we want to not overdo it with the computer," he said. "It's great that we're working out the frontal lobe of the brain, but it's good to take a break and have conversations with people, work on the part of the brain involved with face-to-face human contact skills."
Paul Sanberg, director of the University of South Florida College of Medicine's Center of Excellence for Aging and Brain Repair, said it's indeed possible that Internet searches could enhance the brain. "There's evidence that the more the brain is active, the more the brain makes connections," he said. "That keeps it functioning better and provides neuroprotection."