Pulsing electrical stints via the brain for 20 minutes can increase memory recollection for older adults for at least a month, according to a recent study. It’s a non-invasive and safe method too.
Around 8 percent of individuals in the US get diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia as they get older — particularly impairing their memory — and an even bigger group of older adults has some age-related memory loss.
This recent study is only a first glimpse at a potential solution. But easy, quick treatments like this could become even more critical as the world’s population ages rapidly — especially if future research shows that it can help with more cognitive severe conditions.
The brain incitation in this study came from a swim cap-like device studded with electrodes positioned to deliver the electric current to specific brain areas. The research team was interested in two primary areas: one linked with working memory (which carries information temporarily and coincides with short-term memory) and another connected with long-term memory.
The research team split 60 participants between the ages of 65 and 88 into three groups: one group modeled the device but didn’t bring any electrical stimulation. The second acquired inspiration in the area associated with working memory, and the third received stimulation related to long-term memory.
For four consecutive days, the participants accepted the treatment (or fake treatment) while completing a memory assignment where they were read a list of 20 words and invited to recall them. Then, the researchers scrutinized how often they remembered the words at the start of the list (long-term memory) and the back (working memory).
The study found that working and long-term memory improved over the four days. “We watched the memory improvements accumulate over time with each passing day,” said study author Robert Reinhart, a professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences at Boston University, during a press briefing. And participants still had improved memory one month later.
Unlike drugs and medications, which target the brain’s chemistry, this approach targets the brain’s electrical systems. The electrical stimulation likely helps improve the brain’s growth and change in areas important for memory, said study author Shrey Grover, a cognitive neuroscience researcher at Boston University, during the briefing. “Our brains are plastic, and they can be changed as we learn,” he says.
Reinhart said that people who had faster memory improvements during the four-day study had more significant memory boosts after one month. And the people who had the biggest jumps were the ones who had the worst cognitive abilities before the study started.
Right now, the device used in the study is just an experimental tool. But it’s safe and has few side effects other than itching and tingling. So if research continues to show that it’s useful for things like memory, it’s possible to imagine that it could be available to patients in a doctor’s office, Reinhart says.
The people in this study didn’t have specific disorders like Alzheimer’s, but the research team plans to keep testing this type of treatment in people with that condition. They’re also looking at other conditions affecting cognitive functioning, like schizophrenia or obsessive-compulsive disorder. So there are dozens of potential applications for brain stimulation, Reinhart says.
“It’s a different approach to isolating and augmenting parts of the brain that serve certain functions — like how we perceive, and attend, and remember, and learn, and respond to information from our environment,” Reinhart says.