Using MRIs to document and study the brains of 125 university students in London, researchers have linked the size of specific areas of the brain to the size of a person’s virtual and real social networks.

In the article published Oct. 21 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers claim that “findings demonstrate that the size of an individual’s online social network is closely linked to focal brain structure implicated in social cognition.”
?The regions showing these changes, according to BBC, are the areas of the brain handling memory, social interaction and autism.

One of the researchers involved in the study, Ryota Kanai of the University College of London, told Reuters, “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.”

Professor Geraint Rees, also from UCL, told the BBC that only scant information about how the brain is impacted by social networks is understood, which has led to the belief that the Internet is not good for us.

“Our study will help us begin to understand how our interactions with the world are mediated through social networks,” he said. “This should allow us to start asking intelligent questions about the relationship between the Internet and the brain—scientific questions, not political ones.”

However, given the small number of test subjects and the narrow demographic, the study could not conclusively say which comes first, the large social network or the change in the brain’s structure.

“Our study…cannot determine whether the relationship between brain structure and social network participation arise over time…or whether individuals with a specific brain structure are predisposed to acquire more friends than others,” researchers wrote. “The relative contributions of ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ therefore remain to be determined.”