Zapping people’s brains could boost their memory

GLASGOW, Scotland — Giving the brain a little electrical jolt may be the key to improving memory, a new study finds. An international team says the non-invasive technique sends small charges of electricity to an area of gray matter that tends to diminish in older people. This brain region, the left prefrontal cortex, plays a vital role in episodic memory — the recall of past experiences.

Low frequency repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) offers hope of preventing age-related mental decline and dementia. It also opens the door to a revolutionary therapy for head injuries, according to researchers at the University of Glasgow.

A cap fitted with electrodes delivers tiny currents at specific frequencies through a patient’s scalp. It reduces the power of disruptive beta waves, which appear when the brain is hard at work. Two separate datasets revealed performance improves as memories form if the left prefrontal cortex is stimulated.

“Our electrophysiological results suggest that frontal stimulation affects a wider network and improves memory formation by inhibiting parietal areas,” the study’s first author Mircea van der Plas says in a media release.

Cutting down on brain waves that impair memory

The researchers first analyzed a past study of 40 students who had to remember lists of words. Half the volunteers received slow rTMS over the left prefrontal cortex. In the others, researchers applied the treatment to a control region of the brain.

In a new experiment, 24 participants received a similar task under both conditions. Recordings of brain activity showed slow rTMS to the prefrontal area dampened beta waves in the parietal region that controls attention and perception.

“We were quite surprised when we saw these effects in the first study, which was designed to investigate a different question. Therefore, we needed to replicate the effects in a second experiment to see whether this is real, and indeed it seems to be,” says study co-author Professor Simon Hanslmayr.

Researchers believe interrupting the activity led to an enhanced encoding of the words, increasing memory aptitude.

“These results show applying rTMS to the left prefrontal cortex — an area involved in episodic memory — improves performance via modulating neural activity in parietal regions,” van der Plas tells SWNS in a statement.

Will this delay the onset of Alzheimer’s?

Impaired episodic memory is one of the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease, which affects six million Americans of all ages. With no cure in sight, there is an increasing focus on ways to prevent or stave off the neurological disease.

“These are complex but interesting effects that require further experiments to better understand their neural basis,” van der Plas concludes.

The appears in the journal PLOS Biology.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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