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Can You Boost Your Brainpower Online?

I've heard that the more time you spend online, the sharper your mind. Is this true? 

Answer (Published 11/26/2009)

It's certainly possible. You may be referring to the results of a study at UCLA's Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, which found that mental stimulation similar to that occurring with frequent Internet use may improve the way the brain processes and encodes new information. Earlier research by the UCLA team showed that searching online more than doubled brain activation in older adults with Internet experience.

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For some time, I've been recommending learning a new computer operating system or learning a new language (or both) as the best kinds of challenge to enhance flexibility of the brain's neural network. With age, the brain undergoes structural and functional changes including atrophy and reductions in neuronal activity. At the same time, deposits of amyloid plaques and a build-up of abnormal tau protein can negatively affect cognitive function and increase the risk of Alzheimer's disease.

For their study, the UCLA researchers recruited 24 neurologically normal volunteers between the ages of 55 and 78. About half of the participants used the Internet daily while the other half had relatively little online experience. Otherwise, the two groups were similar in age, educational level and gender.

During the study, participants performed Web searches while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans to record the subtle changes in brain circuitry that take place during this activity.

After the initial brain scan, the participants were asked to conduct Internet searches at home for one hour a day for a total of seven days over a two-week period. The object of the searches was to find answers to questions about various subjects by exploring different websites. Then the participants all had second brain scans using the same Internet simulation task, but with different topics.

The first scan of participants with little Internet experience showed brain activity in areas that control language, reading, memory and visual abilities. The second one, conducted after the two weeks of practice searches at home, showed activity in the same regions plus activity in areas of the brain important for working memory and decision-making. In the two weeks between the first and second scans, the participants who entered the study with minimal Internet experience had increased brain activation patterns similar to those seen among the experienced Internet users.

We've known for some time that mental stimulation can improve cognitive processing and change the way the brain encodes new information. This study is exciting because it showed that improvements in brain function can occur in a short span of time. The findings reinforce my own conviction that workouts for the brain are as important to healthy aging as physical activity for the body. In addition, if you want to support your brain's optimal health, I recommend taking two to three grams of fish oil daily. You won't see immediate results, but over time, improvement can be dramatic.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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