Zapping your brain really does improve memory

Stimulating a region in the brain with non-invasive electrical current using magnetic pulses (Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation) improves memory, reports a new Northwestern Medicine study in Science. The discovery opens a new field of possibilities for treating memory impairments caused by conditions such as stroke, early-stage Alzheimer’s disease, traumatic brain injury, cardiac arrest and the memory problems that occur in healthy aging. This is the first time the memory function of the adult brain has been changed, and it was done without surgery or drugs. (Erin White/Northwestern University)

A lot of people have electrical stimulation on the brain these days: DIY noggin zapping has become a frequent topic of online discussion. A new study in Science suggests that one method of external brain stimulation called transcranial magnetic stimulation (or TMS) might actually work. By shooting magnetic currents at subjects' heads, researchers were able to stimulate the surface of the brain and improve memory function.

The process isn't quite DIY-friendly yet. Researchers had to use an MRI to find the areas on the surface of a subject's brain that seemed to correlate with the memory centers of the hippocampus. They managed that by looking for spots that increased blood flow at the same time the hippocampus was active. That's how they knew where to target their zapping, which took place in 20-minute sessions over the course of five days.

Memory improved by about 30 percent.  "So if they got 10 [flashcards] right before the experiment, they got 13 after," corresponding study author and Northwestern University neuroscientist Joel Voss told Popular Mechanics. "It's not like we turned [our participants] into memory champions, but this is the first time anyone has shown that it's possible to change the operation of the brain's memory network from the outside."

Even though the procedure is non-invasive, that small of a boost means it probably isn't worthwhile for a healthy adult. For people suffering from damaged memory because of trauma or Alzheimer's, however, it could be a valuable therapy. “It’s definitely the kind of thing that could be turned into an intervention that could be implemented in the hospital, and eventually maybe a doctor’s office," Voss told National Geographic.

Voss and his colleagues will focus their next experiments on individuals suffering from mild memory impairment. If TMS proves beneficial to that group, it could eventually be used to treat those suffering from more severe cognitive losses.

Rachel Feltman runs The Post's Speaking of Science blog.
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Rachel Feltman · August 28