Scientists have found that they can boost people’s memory for at least a month by stimulating parts of the brain with electricity without causing harm.
The volunteers who participated in the study performed better in word memorization games, which tested both their “working” memory (temporary storage of information with limited capacity) and their long-term memory.
It remains unclear, however, what the results mean exactly for everyday life.
But the ideas range from helping seniors cope with memory decline, to treating illness and helping with exam preparation.
Robert Reinhart of Boston University in the US described the stimulation technique as “an entirely different approach to isolating and turbocharging parts of the brain” that offers “an entirely new field of possible treatment options”.
The people who participated in the study wore a cap filled with electrodes. A controlled electrical current, which resembles an itch or tingle, was then used to precisely alter brain waves in specific regions of the brain.
The volunteers underwent 20 minutes of stimulation daily for four consecutive days. Over the course of the study, they had to memorize lists of words—and were asked to remember them again a month later.
Reinhart said the treatment “may cause improvement in selective memory that lasts for at least a month.”
The results, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, show that the volunteers who had difficulty with memory games at the start of the experiment were the ones whose memory improved the most.
how memory works
The electrical signals changed the rhythm of brain activity — brain waves — in the targeted areas.
Scientists believe the four rounds of stimulation reinforced these patterns and led to lasting improvements as the brain adapted and rewired itself — what is known as neuroplasticity.
“It’s a kind of connection with the so-called language of the brain, which talks to itself and communicates with itself through electrical impulses,” says Reinhart.
However, different types of stimulation are needed to increase different types of memory:
- Working memory is for the here and now. It’s how you retain information in your mind—like taking notes in class—and it’s vital in problem solving and decision making.
- Boosting it requires low-frequency stimulation of the prefrontal cortex, at the front of the brain.
- Long-term memory is where we store information; it’s how we can remember our first day of school or a wedding.
- Boosting it requires high-frequency stimulation of the parietal cortex, at the back of the brain.
- In word games—recalling those given at the beginning tests long-term memory, while recalling after a month tests working memory.
All 150 people who participated in the study were healthy, without cognitive impairment and aged between 65 and 88 years.
Becoming more forgetful is often a sign of age, but whether this form of stimulation can help brain aging in the real world beyond wordplay remains to be seen.
Dementia, including Alzheimer’s, is caused by a diseased brain with brain cells that are dying — leading to memory problems.
Researchers are investigating whether the technology can be used in Alzheimer’s to stimulate surviving brain cells, as well as in schizophrenia and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
“We don’t know whether brain stimulation techniques have the potential to help people with dementia, but research is ongoing in this area,” says Susan Kohlhaas, research director at Alzheimer’s Research UK.
Currently, this method of stimulation — transcranial alternating current stimulation — is only possible in research laboratories.
So if you’re thinking of using this cognitive-enhancing technique to pass a test, for example, scientists say its at-home use is for the distant future.
But researcher Shrey Grover says he believes it can be used alongside more traditional methods to keep your mind sharp, like crossword puzzles and Sudoku.
“Any effort to remain cognitively engaged is always welcome, this kind of approach is perhaps something that can be added to things that people are already doing,” he says.
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