Sunday, October 30, 2011

Facebook use correlates to larger brain regions, study shows!

Biology | 19.10.2011

Facebook use correlates to larger brain regions, study shows


Scientists have found a correlation between parts of the brain related to social perception and a person's number of Facebook friends. The study is part of a set of studies examining how the brain and Internet interact.


In a study involving 125 British university students who were subjected to an MRI brain scan, the ones with more Facebook friends showed that they have a higher volume of brain matter in the amygdala, the right superior temporal sulcus, the left middle temporal gyrus and the right entorhinal cortex. The amygdala is associated with emotion, while the other regions tend to be associated with interpreting body language and social perception.

The British scientists, writing in a study published Wednesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, cautioned that Facebook does not necessarily make parts of the brain bigger.

"There had to be a simple relationship between positivity and the number of friends on Facebook," said Ryota Kanai, a researcher at the University College, London, who was the study's lead author. "We expected some sort of relationship, but we were surprised that there was such a strong correlation."

New form of interaction

Kanai also told Deutsche Welle that Facebook and other social networks are inherently different than previous types of interactive websites, as they connect real-life interactions with virtual ones.

"There's something interesting about Facebook, which is that most of the young students know the people that they're connected to," he said. "They use Facebook as a way to maintain contact with people they know in real life. In that sense it's different than old ways of using the Internet."

However, Kanai emphasized that this study merely showed a relationship, and not necessarily a causal one - research does not show, at least for the time being, that having more Facebook friends enhances the size of these sections of the brain.

A hot research area

The relationship between the Internet and the brain has been a growing area of research around the globe.

Work published by a team of Chinese researchers in June 2011 found that "long-term Internet addiction would result in brain structural alterations." Three years ago, an article in the American magazine, The Atlantic, asked: "Is Google making us Stupid?"

Neurologists said they are intrigued by the new findings.

"I think it's very exciting, it's an intriguing observation," said Heidi Johansen-Berg, a reader in clinical neurology at the University of Oxford, who was not part of the study.

However, she also cautioned that this study would need to be expanded beyond Facebook-using university students.

"One way, which is how it's intuitively interpreted is the fact that you have this extensive social network that has altered your brain," she told Deutsche Welle. "Does it reflect your sociability or the fact that you're open to new media? Those are other factors why you behave in that way. Are virtual networks tapping into the same or different brain systems than real-life friends?"

Kanai said his research would continue to work in this direction as the Internet becomes ever-more pervasive in modern society.

"One of the important questions is the causation: we want to know how Facebook, or the Internet in general, has an impact in our brain?" he said. "Ideally we want to track how the brain changes as people use Facebook. We want to find people who haven't used the Internet and give them the Internet and see how the brain changes."

Author: Cyrus Farivar
Editor: Sean Sinico

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