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Electrical currents to the brain improve memory for older adults, study finds

It’s noninvasive and safe

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Two memory-related brain regions were the focus of the study.

According to a recent study, pulsing electrical currents across the brain for 20 minutes can improve memory in older persons for at least a month.

As they age, about 8% of Americans are diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, which severely impairs memory, and a much larger population of older folks have age-related memory loss. This new study only offers a preliminary analysis of a potential remedy. But as the world’s population increasingly ages, simple, cheap treatments like this one could become even more crucial, especially if subsequent study demonstrates its efficacy in treating more severe cognitive disorders.

This study, which was published on Monday in Nature Neuroscience, used an electrode-studded swim cap-like apparatus to administer an electric current to particular regions of the brain. The study team was particularly interested in two areas: one related to working memory, which briefly stores information and overlaps with short-term memory, and another related to long-term memory.

The study’s 60 participants, who ranged in age from 65 to 88, were separated into three groups. One group wore the device but received no electrical stimulation; the other two received stimulation in the working memory region; and the third group received stimulation in the long-term memory region. The participants underwent the therapy (or a sham treatment) for four days straight while completing a memory test that involved reading a list of 20 words and asking the subjects to recollect them. Long-term memory was tested to determine how frequently the words at the start and end of the list were remembered (working memory).

The study discovered that over the course of the four days, working and long-term memory both improved. During a news conference, study author Robert Reinhart, a professor in Boston University’s department of psychology and brain sciences, said, “We watched the memory enhancements grow over time with each passing day.” One month later, participants’ memories were still better.

This type of strategy targets the electrical systems of the brain as opposed to pharmaceuticals and treatments, which target the chemistry of the brain. According to study author Shrey Grover, a cognitive neuroscience researcher at Boston University, electrical stimulation probably aids in the brain’s growth and alteration in regions crucial for memory. According to him, “our brains are plastic and they can alter as we learn.”

According to Reinhart, those who improved their memory more quickly over the course of the four-day research experienced greater memory gains after one month. And those who experienced the largest increases in cognitive function were also the ones with the lowest baseline scores.

The study’s device is merely an experimental tool at the moment. But given that it’s risk-free and only causes minor side effects like itching and tingling, Reinhart believes it’s conceivable that people may get access to it at a doctor’s office if studies continue to show that it helps with things like memory.

Although the participants in this study did not have any particular illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease, the research team intends to continue studying this course of treatment on those who do. In addition, various mental health issues like schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder are being studied. Brain stimulation has a wide range of possible applications, according to Reinhart.

As for how we perceive, attend, remember, learn, and respond to information from our surroundings, Reinhart adds, “It’s a different approach to isolating and augmenting regions of the brain that serve various activities.”