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Researchers studying the aging process have found that surfing the Web may improve the memories of middle-aged and older adults.

The new study, conducted by researchers at the University of California Los Angeles Center on Aging, suggests that searching the Internet stimulates the parts of the brain that control reading, language and memory, which could prolong cognitive function.

"The study results are encouraging," Gary Small, a professor of neuroscience at UCLA and one of the authors of the study, said in a statement. "Internet searching engages complicated brain activity, which may help exercise and improve brain function."

Small and his team studied 24 people between the ages of 55 and 76. Of those, half were familiar with searching for information on the Web, and the other half had no Internet experience. The two teams were similarly grouped in other respects, such as gender, education and mean age level.

The volunteers were given a series of Web searches and tasks that involved reading passages in a book, while the researchers monitored their brain activity.

The magnetic resonance imaging scans revealed that the temporal, parietal and occipital lobes were activated in all of the participants as they performed the book-reading tasks.

The same parts of the brain were activated to a far greater degree during the Web searches, but only among the participants who were experienced Internet users.

That result led Small and his team to conclude that the challenges of ferreting out information on the Web demand a deeper level of engagement than reading, which could delay the atrophy and diminished cell activity that can erode cognitive ability.

"Our most striking finding was that Internet searching appears to engage a greater extent of neural circuitry that is not activated during reading -- but only in those with prior Internet experience," Small said.

When performing Internet tasks, the group of experienced Web users showed twice the level of activity as the inexperienced participants.

"A simple, everyday task like searching the Web appears to enhance brain circuitry in older adults, demonstrating that our brains are sensitive and can continue to learn as we grow older," Small said.

The researchers concluded that the low levels of brain activation among the inexperienced users were likely the result of not understanding the strategies involved in Web searching, but they could still learn with more practice.

"With more time on the Internet, they may demonstrate the same brain activation patterns as the more experienced group," he said.

Researchers have long understood the connections between brain longevity and challenging activities such as crossword puzzles, but Small believes his study is the first to put Internet activity in that category.

The research will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.