Can brain stimulation be used to improve memory?

By: Rachael Hutchings

Northwestern Medicine scientists in Chicago have revealed, in a paper published in the Current Biology journal earlier this month, a cutting-edge procedure which can cause a notable improvement in precise memory. Unlike general memory, this type of memory is central to a person’s ability to function normally, and it is often the type that is lost in people who suffer with serious memory illnesses such as Alzheimer’s Disease, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Parkinson’s Disease (which currently have no set cures, and many drug and non-drug treatments prove unsuccessful). An example to provide understanding of precise memory’s role to an individual is knowing details such as the specific colour, shape, size, name and location of a shop you are looking for, rather than purely knowing the part of town it can be found in.

It is the first time that non-invasive brain stimulation has been used in the smaller fashion of a scalpel, rather than tackled with a larger (and less exact and meticulous) tool like a hammer, to attain more specific and localised enhancements and progressions in precise memory. Most studies up to this point of non-invasive brain stimulation have found only very general and short lived effects on abilities to think, rather than the more highly specific and long-lasting effects on an ability such as precise memory.

Joel Voss, the assistant professor of medical social sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and lead author of the research paper, states that “people with brain injuries have problems with precise memory as do individuals with dementia, and so our findings could be useful in developing new treatments for these conditions.” Voss also discusses how the research demonstrates that it is possible to accurately target the particular section of the brain responsible for precise memory, suggesting an expansion in treatment choices for those in need and a more focussed attempt of finding cures for the aforementioned illnesses.

The process is carried out by simply stimulating the exact network in the brain which is accountable for spatial memory with extremely powerful electro-magnets. The subjects of the research studied around 100 objects, each at detailed screen location, and then following that were tested for their capability to recall these places after a delay. By doing this, the Northwestern Medicine scientists improved the accuracy and precision of people’s recollection and identification of locations. This benefit lasted a full twenty-four hours after receiving stimulation and paralleled to the changes in the brain’s overall activity.

The scientists used MRI to identify memory-related brain networks before the non-invasive electromagnetic stimulation and memory tests which were used were heavily detailed in order to show that this actively improved spatial precision memory and could arguably have a positive effect on healthcare and memory illness treatment. Furthermore, EEG (an abbreviation in medical terms for electrogastrography) was used to show that these improvements in memory corresponded to the clear indicators of better-quality brain network action.

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