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Suffering with Short-Term Memory Loss? You May Be Able To Zap Your Brain for Memories

By: AB White


According to new research, a cap that zaps the brain with electrodes boosts short-term memory in persons over 65. For four days, 150 older individuals wore a swim-like hat and allowed low-dose electrical pulses to wash areas of their brains. They were given five sets of 20 words each and instructed to recall them during 20-minute sessions. In some instances, the oscillations were directed to a brain region associated with short-term memory, where a newly learned phone number would be retained. They were tested to determine how many words they recalled from the previous day. In others, the pulses were targeted further ahead, in a location known for long-term memory storage. Even though they were unaware, the goal of the exam was to assess how many of their first words they remembered. 


After the therapy, virtually all subjects performed better on memory tests than before and outperformed the controls. People who performed poorly at the start improved the most. According to recent research from Boston University published Monday in the journal Nature Neuroscience, the memory improvements lasted a month. Although it is still in its early stages, with many steps before such technology can be thoroughly vetted and made available, the ramifications are enormous.


“Whether these improvements would occur for everyday memories, rather than just for lists of words, remains to be tested," said Masud Husain, a University of Oxford professor of neurology and cognitive neuroscience. 


Scientists believed that by early adulthood, the brain was fixed and incapable of growing or changing. It is now commonly accepted that the brain is capable of plasticity (the ability to alter its structure, functions, or connections) throughout life. 

How does this help people? 

Everyone gets forgetful as they get older, even those who don't have disorders like dementia. They lose their vehicle keys or even the car itself. They have a more challenging time learning new things. They have a more difficult time planning. The quality of life might be significantly enhanced by a brief electrical pulse therapy that could stop deterioration or possibly even restore some of these functions. Researchers are still determining the ideal "dosage" and potential advantages' duration, but they are hopeful that ultimately their technology will be accessible for at-home use.

The research included participants aged 65 to 88, with the majority suffering from usual memory loss or moderate cognitive impairment, a precursor to dementia. The researchers are also looking at using the technology to treat those who have schizophrenia-related memory loss and obsessive-compulsive behaviors. The same strategy could theoretically assist healthy people in improving their memory, but it hasn't been the focus of the team's recent work. However, using it in cognitively normal adults may be more difficult, according to Ivan Alekseichuk, a research scientist at the University of Minnesota. He was not involved in the study but did comparative research.

Forgetting is an integral part of working memory, he said. "Forgetting something is not a memory bug; it's a feature," he said. "You have to forget to learn. You don't want to improve memory in otherwise healthy people overly." 

How does it work? What are the side effects?

The electrodes on the cap send mild electrical pulses to certain brain parts previously associated with distinct forms of memory. Delivering these high-frequency pulses to the prefrontal brain boosted test subjects' capacity to remember terms at the beginning of the word list. Applying the same specific alternating current at a low frequency to the parietal cortex, further back in the brain, helps just their short-term memory. Energy oscillations excite brain cells, restoring their "plasticity," or capacity to change. This also permits them to continue improving even after the simulation finishes, according to Shrey Grover, the Ph.D. candidate who conducted the research. According to Alekseichuk, a biomedical engineer, because the stimulation was provided when participants were performing a specific activity, it likely enhanced the link between distinct brain regions responsible for that job. Once established, the link will last at least a month. According to him, it's unclear whether the strategy improved long-term memory, which usually needs someone to recall things for at least a day. However, it did boost the participant's "working memory," which is what individuals rely on in their daily lives. "It's thrilling," he remarked.

People felt itching, tingling, poking, and heat when the device ramped up or down for the first and last 30-60 seconds of therapy, according to Reinhart. Some individuals in past studies have complained of slight headaches or exhaustion, but this was not observed in the current research. He and others who have tried similar procedures have noticed no concerning or long-term adverse effects. 

Only one month following the medication, participants in this trial were monitored. Grover said he is optimistic the advantages would stay that long, but he has to confirm with more study. Other studies using similar procedures have shown that effects could linger for as long as three months.

What’s next?

The team is still determining how individualized the therapy should be. It's possible that by better focusing the electrical pulses, they'll be able to produce longer-lasting or more substantial changes, but that's still being worked out. Personalization, according to Alekseichuk, may enhance efficacy but not enough to justify the additional cost, which he estimates to be at least ten times the device's current price of $15,000. He called the fact that researchers noticed improvement without tailoring the therapy "very intriguing." There may be less expensive methods to customize it, such as adjusting the time gap between treatments or even the time of day they are provided, with morning persons receiving treatment at different times than "owls."

The researchers will also investigate if the medication can improve the capacities of healthy people at some time.

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