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Small Electrical Pulses Might Boost Memory

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A tiny burst of electricity can help boost memory, a new study suggests. The trick is to deliver that little bit of stimulation to exactly the right place at exactly the right instant.

Michael Kahana, psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author on the study, says, “We saw a 15 percent improvement in memory.” He has spent years trying to understand why the brain frequently does not store information that people want to keep, NPR reports.

Kahana said,

When we’re trying to study a list of items, sometimes the items stick and sometimes we have momentary lapses where we don’t seem to remember anything.

Thinking that there must be some way the brain can improve in this area, Kahana and a team of researchers made a computer learn to recognize patterns of electrical activity. This activity showed that the brain was about to have a memory gap.

The computer then intervened by delivering an electric pulse to various parts of the brain just before the lapse was to happen. In the area responsible for recalling words, the approach worked. Kahana said, “When we stimulated the left temporal cortex, we found that memory was improved significantly. When we stimulated other parts of the brain, memory was, by and large, impaired.”

This experiment was conducted on 25 patients with epilepsy who were waiting for surgeries to treat their seizures. Doctors had already placed wires running to their brains to track electrical activity.

This approach could have potential uses in treating people with memory problems caused by brain injuries or Alzheimer’s disease. However, the technology is still miles away from possible use, though scientists are already working on a version that could be implanted in a person.

The study is funded by the US military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency as part of ongoing efforts to help personnel and veterans with memory problems due to brain injuries.

The study was published in Nature Communications.

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