Zapping Brain Boosts Memory of People Over 60

Henrietta Strickland
April 11, 2019

Sadly, this useful resource declines with age, and never merely in these with significant cognitive deterioration, comparable to dementia, however in wholesome folks too experiencing the traditional neurocognitive results of aging.

Using a technique known as electroencephalography (EEG) to monitor brain activity and a another called transcranial alternating-current stimulation (tACS), the scientists stimulated the brains of a group of young and old people and were able to modulate the brainwave interactions linked to their working memory. Working memory is crucial for a wide variety of tasks, such as recognising faces, doing arithmetic and navigating a new environment.

The experiment: Scientists from Boston University tested young people and old people on a series of memory tasks.

Zapping the brains of people over 60 with a mild electrical current improved a form of memory enough that they performed like people in their 20s, a new study found.

Without brain stimulation, the older people were slower and less accurate than the younger ones.

But whether or not the findings, published in Nature Neuroscience, result in any practical applications, they provide some of the strongest evidence yet of why older adults aren't as good at remembering a just-heard phone number or an address in a just-seen text: Brain circuits become functionally disconnected and fall out of synchrony. With age there is a desynchronization between the two regions.

While receiving active brain stimulation, older adults improved their working-memory test scores to the levels of the younger people. Those who had scored worst to start with showed the largest improvements. "We can tune [the stimulation] to your frequency, your sweet spot", Reinhart said.

For alternating current, delivered by electrodes embedded in a skull cap, to become a treatment for working memory deficits, however, it would have to overcome a long list of hurdles, starting with proof that it's safe.

"I would caution against any uncritical assumption that this will translate into clinical benefit", he said.

Reinhart explains that this therapy would aim at the "working memory" of the individuals.

Dardo Tomasi, a scientist at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in Bethesda, who was not involved in the work, said: "This is an important finding that can lead to future development of alternative interventions ... for dementia". People saw an image of, say, an accordion, and three seconds later saw it or something else, and then were asked to indicate whether they'd seen it before.

Researchers welcomed the findings, which they said could pave the way for treatments to sharpen normal age-related memory declines in people further down the line.

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