As we age, we can begin to lose the ability to remember – not just where you left your glasses, but also long-term memories, such as the face of your favorite uncle.
Now researchers at Boston University have shown a way to revive those memories with a jolt of electricity.
The scientists gave a short-term memory task to a group of people in their 20s and another group in their 60s and 70s. (The older adults showed no signs of suffering from dementia.) People in each group looked at an image, paused briefly, and then were asked whether a second image was identical to the first or had subtle changes.
The younger group dramatically outperformed the older.
Then each of the older participants donned a skullcap dotted with electrodes that targeted areas of the brain responsible for memory. For 25 minutes, the electrodes delivered a mild electrical stimulation through the skin and skull into those parts of the brain.
During the boost, older adults’ performance on the same kind of memory test matched that of the 20-somethings; better yet, the effect lasted for at least 50 minutes after the current was shut off.
A separate experiment showed that young people with poor memories made similar gains when their brains were zapped in the same way.
To form memories, electrical wavelengths in different parts of the brain have to coordinate. If they don’t synchronize, memories aren’t formed or recalled. The researchers found that the electrical stimulation – which was tuned to the unique brain patterns of each test subject – helped those waves come back into harmony.
Bioscience is just now beginning to understand the benefits of electrostimulation in everything from healing broken bones to mental functioning. Research in this area will expand rapidly over the next decade, leading to validated commercial applications.