Electrical brain stimulation 'boosts memory'

  • 29 August 2014
  • From the section Health
Picture of device used in study
Image caption Scientists say the device emits a strong electromagnetic field in rapid pulses

Exciting a specific part of the brain with electromagnetic pulses could boost our ability to remember certain facts, a study in Science suggests.

The US trials involving 16 volunteers found they made 30% fewer mistakes in memory tests after the procedure.

Scientists are now investigating whether the technique could help people with memory disorders and reduce memory loss in later life.

Independent researchers describe the method as "ingenious".

'Naming faces'

Researchers at Northwestern University in the US targeted a particular nerve hub known as the hippocampus.

This area of the brain has a central role in basic memory processes that tie unrelated facts together - such as remembering someone's name or the contents of last night's dinner.

Scientists pinpointed this region in each of their 16 volunteers using detailed scans and then assessed their baseline memory.

Participants were presented with pictures of faces while hearing unrelated words and asked to learn and remember the face-word pair.

Image caption Participants were asked to remember arbitrary word-face pairs

A device was then used to apply short bursts of electromagnetic stimulation to the area of the head directly above the hippocampus hub.

The sessions lasted 20 minutes a day for five consecutive days.

Volunteers scored significantly better on similar memory tests after this procedure - even 24 hours after sessions were completed.

The study revealed they made 30% fewer mistakes at this point, compared with scores before they had the procedure.

And they showed no signs of improvement when exposed to a dummy, placebo version of the device.

'Closer synchrony'

Prof Joel Voss, who led the study, said: "We show for the first time that you can specifically change memory functions of the brain in adults without surgery or drugs, which have not proven effective."

He added: "This non-invasive stimulation improves the ability to learn new things.

"It has tremendous potential for treating memory disorders."

Researchers are now investigating how memory changes in older age, and hope to start trials on people with early signs of dementia.

Dr Nick Davis, who was not involved in the study, said: "The method used to stimulate the hippocampus is quite ingenious. It is very smart work.

"The work is exciting as most of our knowledge about memory circuits comes from animal studies or people with memory impairments."

Scientists say the device works by emitting a strong electromagnetic field in rapid pulses.

This then generates an electrical current in nerve fibres - mimicking the usual electrical activity in the brain.

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