Brain doctor: Spend five hours on the Internet and call me in the morning

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but scientific findings seem to indicate otherwise. Research shows that our brains literally rewire in response to new stimulation. And when it comes to computer use, Internet activity may stimulate and possibly improve brain function, according to scientists at UCLA.

“Technology may be changing our minds and changing the way we think,” said Dr. Gary Small, a neuroscientist who spoke last year at the UCLA Technology & Aging Conference held at the Skirball Cultural Center.

Small, director of the UCLA Center on Aging, described results of research he and colleagues performed with volunteers between the ages of 55 and 76. Half of the participants were familiar with how to search the Internet, and the other half were new to it. The participants engaged in Internet searching while simultaneously undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging.

The MRI images clearly showed activity in the areas of the brain that control decision-making and complex reasoning — but only in the Web-savvy group. The inexperienced group showed no such activity.

However, after just five one-hour sessions of practice, the Web newbies showed activation in the same areas of the brain as the savvy group.

“Five hours on the Internet and the naive subjects had already rewired their brains,” said Small, writing about the findings in “iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind.” “Recent studies demonstrate that older brains do remain malleable and plastic throughout life. Even areas of the brain that were reserved for specialized tasks can be recruited and retrained.”

In other words, “use it or lose it” applies to the brain. Indeed, Small notes, “Several studies have shown that exercising the brain with mental aerobics not only can improve cognitive performance scores but also may delay brain degeneration.”

Achieving brain fitness requires more than mental exercises, however. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, being physically active, eating a healthy diet and maintaining social relationships are also components of promoting brain health.

While the mental stimulation provided by digital technology can fuel our brains, there’s a flip side to this phenomenon. On the one hand, video gaming and digital interaction can quicken reaction time and improve some forms of attention. On the other hand, digital natives — those who were born into the world of laptops, BlackBerries and iPods — may be depriving their brain of some important aptitudes.

Digital natives tend to have shorter attention spans. They’re also less adept at relationship skills. Digital immigrants may take longer than their native counterparts to process information, but they show a superior ability to think globally.

“Today’s adolescents are now spending more than a full eight-hour workday exposing their brains to digital technology,” Small said. “By spending this much time staring at a computer or television screen, these young people are not solidifying the normal neural pathways their brains need to develop traditional face-to-face communication skills.

“Our high-tech revolution has plunged us into a state of continuous partial attention … [We] no longer have time to reflect, contemplate or make thoughtful decisions.”

Small believes these differences have created the beginning of what he refers to as a “brain gap” between younger and older minds. “What used to be simply a generation gap … has now become a huge divide resulting in two separate cultures,” he said.

Neuroscientist Dr. Gary Small says bringing younger and older people together helps optimize the neural circuitry for both generations.

His solution is for both digital natives and digital immigrants to find a balance — one where “we use technology effectively while remaining connected to others in a personal way.”

To achieve that, Small suggests finding ways to bring younger and older people together to help optimize the neural circuitry for both generations.

In other words, not only can old dogs learn new tricks, they have a few to teach as well.