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Can Google Searches Build Brain Muscle?

Dr.Gary Small Gene Stone Default

The second of five conversations between brain expert Dr. Gary Small and health writer Gene Stone

Gene Stone: In our last conversation we discussed the relationship between physical exercise and brain health. You've said that there is a direct relationship between mental stimulation and brain health as well. Isn't that kind of obvious?
Gary Small: It is and it isn't obvious. A lot of epidemiological studies have shown a connection between mental stimulation and brain health as we age. People who have graduated from college or do lots of crossword puzzles or play board games or read lots of books have been found to have a lower rate of developing Alzheimer's dementia than those who don't. In fact, you can even quantify the results—the more time you spend stimulating your mind each week, the lower your risk for Alzheimer's dementia.
Stone: But isn't it possible that the people who are doing those puzzles are already more brain-active?
Small: Exactly. It's a bit of a chicken versus the egg dilemma. If you have good brain genes, you're more likely to go to college, more likely to do brain games, read, and so on. Personally, I think it's a combination of nature and nurture—both genetic and behavior habits can benefit brain health.
Stone: Wouldn't research on animals help solve that issue, since they don't naturally tend to live in mentally enriching environments?
Small: Yes, actually. Studies of laboratory mice show that the more enriched their environments are—i.e., environments containing mazes, toys, and obstacles they must overcome—the more likely these animals are to have more brain cells in their hippocampus, which is a key memory center in the brain.
Stone: And that would mean?
Small: Their memories are better.
Stone: What are some of the more interesting ways—besides mazes, toys, and obstacles—we can use to enrich our brains?
Small: It's interesting that searching online is a common form of brain exercise. Our UCLA research group found that when older people with prior Internet experience searched online, there was much greater neural activity compared to people of the same age and educational achievement who hadn't used Google before.
Stone: In other words, your brain on Google is better than your brain offline.
Small: I'm not sure if your brain is any better, but our study indicated that it becomes more active with practice. We also had the Internet-naïve group practice searching online for an hour a day for a week. We then repeated the experiment and found significant increases in the neural activity, particularly in the frontal lobe, the part of the brain that makes decisions.
Stone: So, as with physical exercise, mental exercise builds up the brain muscle.
Small: Yes, it's similar to bodybuilders working out and activating muscle fibers.

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