News ID: 189424
Published: 0313 GMT March 15, 2017

Zapping the brain with electricity could improve memory

Zapping the brain with electricity could improve memory

Zapping the brain with low levels of electricity may help improve the short-term memory of those suffering major neurological injuries, a new study found.

The research found applying a low voltage current can help people perform better on tasks such as remembering new names or a shopping list, reported.

Scientists hope the technique could one day be used to bypass damaged areas of the brain and relay signals in people who have suffered a traumatic injury, stroke or epilepsy.

In the brain there are a huge number of messages being sent at the same time, with brainwaves working at different frequencies and in different regions keeping a steady ‘beat’.

The research team from Imperial College London found weak electrical current through the scalp helps align different parts of the brain, synchronizing their brain waves and enabling them to keep the same beat.

Neuroscientist Dr. Ines Ribeiro Violante, who led the research, said: "What we observed is that people performed better when the two waves had the same rhythm and at the same time."

Senior author of the paper Professor David Sharp, said: "We are very excited about the potential of brain stimulation to treat patients.

"I work with patients who often have major problems with working memory after their head injuries, so it would be great to have a way to enhance our current treatments, which may not always work for them.

"Our next step is to try the approach out in our patients and we will see whether combining it with cognitive training can restore lost skills."

The study, published in the journal eLife, used a technique called transcranial alternating current stimulation (TACS) to manipulate the brain's regular rhythm.

They found that buzzing the brain with electricity could give a performance boost to the same memory processes used when trying to remember names at a party, phone numbers or even a short grocery list.

The researchers targeted the middle frontal gyrus and the inferior parietal lobule parts of the brain, which are known to be involved in working memory.

Volunteers carried out memory tests which increased in difficulty while receiving electrical stimulation to those two parts of the brain wither at differently times, the same times or in a quick burst.

The results showed when the brain regions were stimulated in sync, reaction times on the memory tasks improved, especially on the harder tasks which required volunteers to hold two strings of numbers in their minds.

Violante said: "The classic behavior is to do slower on the harder cognitive task, but people performed faster with synchronized stimulation and as fast as on the simpler task."

Previous studies have shown brain stimulation with electromagnetic waves or electrical current affect brain activity, but the field has remained controversial due to a lack of reproducibility.

However with an MRI scanner, the team, in collaboration with University Collage London, was able to show changes in activity occurring during stimulation, with the electrical current potentially modulating the flow of information.

Violante added: "We can use TACS to manipulate the activity of key brain networks and we can see what's happening with MRI.

"The results show that when the stimulation was in sync, there was an increase in activity in those regions involved in the task. When it was out of sync the opposite effect was seen."

However making the treatment available to the wider public may be difficult due to the individual nature of people's brain.

The researchers say not only do the electrodes have to get the right frequency, but target it to the right part of the brain and get the beat in time.

Violante added: "We use a very cheap technique, and that's one of the advantages we hope it will bring if it's translatable to the clinic.

"The next step is to see if the brain stimulation works in patients with brain injury, in combination with brain imaging, where patients have lesions which impair long range communication in their brains.

"The hope is that it could eventually be used for these patients, or even those who have suffered a stroke or who have epilepsy."

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