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Don't Count On Facebook Boosting Your Brainpower Just Yet

A lot of people seem to be running wild with the idea that there is a direct, positive link between Facebook and the brain's grey matter.

I want to believe a study that suggested Facebook can enhance the size of key parts of your brain. Really I do.

But Facebook hasn't been proved to build a bigger brain just yet, and having a bigger brain wouldn't necessary mean you're better at making virtual friends either.

The rush to credulity on this proposition may lie in some of the language used to describe the study; PR materials called the findings a "direct link." That tends to make me think cause and effect. But in this study, that hasn't been proved.

University College London researchers merely found a correlation, not a direct cause, between the amount of grey matter in college students' brains and the number of friends they had on Facebook.

The students with larger, friend networks happened to have more grey matter seen in brain scans. The researchers have emphasized the association and not causation in a statement and a briefing for reporters.

Lead-author Ryota Kanai and his team looked at regions of the brain that have been known to correspond to social cognition: the amygdala, the right superior temporal sulcus, the left middle temporal gyrus and the entorhinal cortex.

Grey matter, or the brain tissue responsible for processing, is found in these regions corresponding to memory, emotional response, perception, navigation and reading social cues. In other words, the researchers were looking in the places where social cognition occurs.

When they compared the brain scans of 125 healthy university students to the number of online friends and real-life friends they had, those with more friends had more grey matter in the amygdala — a region already known to be larger in people with a larger network of real-world friends. They also saw more grey matter in the other three brain regions of people with a high number of online friends. The results were replicated in 40 more students.

What do others think? "I'm cautiously optimistic about the relationship," Dr. James Fowler, who wasn't involved in the research, tells Shots. Fowler, a professor of medical genetics and political science at University of California, San Diego, investigates brain function and social networking. His research has shown that genes alone don't dictate social behavior.

So what does the University College researchers' work have going for it?:

  • They're looking in the right place.
  • They did see more grey matter in the brains of people with more virtual friends.
  • Variability in the grey matter occurs across individuals and populations.
  • The brain changes as it matures.
  • More grey matter doesn't necessarily mean better social networking.
  • Further research needs to be done to directly connect the two factors.

"Next they should do a functional study," Fowler says. "What happens when people are actually on Facebook? Is increasing the amount of engagement simultaneously causing our brains to change to make social interaction more enjoyable?"

The findings appeared Wednesday in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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