More Facebook friends means bigger brain? What study says

"Facebook can be distracting and can negatively impact learning," says Rosen. "Studies found that middle school, high school and college students who checked Facebook at least once during a 15-minute study period achieved lower grades." istockphoto

How Facebook affects your kids - good and bad
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(CBS) Having lots of Facebook friends might mean more than lots of birthday wishes. A new study suggests the more Facebook friends you have, the more gray matter you'll have in your brain.

What's gray matter? It's the brain tissue that gathers and processes sensory information, and is linked to intelligence and memory.

Previous studies have linked Facebook use to problems like aggression, narcissism, and substance abuse. The scientists behind the new study set out to see what, if anything, Facebook is doing to our brains.

For the study - published in the Oct. 19 issue of Proceedings of the Royal Society B - scientists analyzed the online profiles and brain scans of 125 university students, and found having more Facebook friends was tied to having more gray matter in regions of the brain associated with emotion, memory, navigation, and perceiving social cues.

What does more gray matter mean? Previous research suggests the more gray matter a person has, the more intelligent they are. Earlier studies have also linked having more gray matter to having more friends in real life.

The scientists also looked at how many friends the students in the study had in the real world, and found the number of online friends mirrors the number of real-life friends.

That flies against earlier research that suggested Facebook users are more likely to be outcasts with mental health woes, CBS News reported.

"Our findings support the idea that most Facebook users use the site to support their existing social relationships, maintaining or reinforcing these friendships, rather than just creating networks of entirely new, virtual friends," Professor Geraint Rees, a clinical research fellow at the University College of London, said in a written statement.

The new study also raises interesting questions. Are people with more gray matter in parts of the brain more social online on the web and in real life, or has the social network of 800 million-plus users actually changed our brains?

"We have found some interesting brain regions that seem to link to the number of friends we have - both 'real' and 'virtual'," study author Dr. Ryota Kanai, a cognitive neuroscience researcher at the University College of London, said in a written statement. "The exciting question now is whether these structures change over time - this will help us answer the question of whether the internet is changing our brains." Some experts however downplayed those implications.

"If you got yourself 100 new Facebook friends today then your brain would not be bigger tomorrow," Heidi Johansen-Berg, a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford, told Reuters. "The study cannot tell us whether using the Internet is good or bad for our brains."

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