EVANSTON, Ill. — Could calm, rhythmic audio at night help elderly people strengthen their brains?
A new study from Northwestern University finds that gentle sound stimulation synchronized to the rhythm of brain waves greatly improves the deep sleep of older adults, which in turn aids them in remembering words.
Previous studies showed similar results in younger adults, but testing hadn’t occurred in the elder segment.
The study — published this month in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience — examined 13 participants aged 60 or older who received one night of acoustic stimulation and one night of a placebo stimulation. The subjects took memory tests before being treated at nighttime and the following morning.
The results showed that while recall ability after the fake stimulation improved for the morning after by a few percent, the average improvement was three times bigger after the gentle sound stimulation, according to a university news release.
“This is an innovative, simple and safe non-medication approach that may help improve brain health,” says Phyllis Zee, professor of neurology at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine and senior author of the study, in the release. “This is a potential tool for enhancing memory in older populations and attenuating normal age-related memory decline.”
Zee and her team used a unique method that involved analyzing participants’ brain waves in real time and then activating the audio “during a precise moment of neuron communication during deep sleep,” the release explains.
Deep sleep, which is important for memory fortification, begins to sharply decrease beginning in middle-age, which is believed by scientists to be the cause of memory loss in aging. Brain waves slow to about one per second during deep sleep, then speed up to 10 oscillations per second when awake.
In the study, researchers found that the greatest strides in participants improving their memory occurred with the greatest degree of slow wave sleep enhancement. Still, larger-scale research is needed to confirm how efficient this kind of audio treatment is.