Scientists can zap the brain into remembering

Having trouble remembering? Try a jolt of electricity to the brain. Okay, don't actually try that. But a new study reports that the use of a small electric current can improve memory.

In the study, published in Science by Northwestern researchers, a team found that using a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation - which involves a non-invasive electric current, using magnetic pulses, to a region of the brain - can help improve memory.

This has possible implications for patients with Alzheimer's disease or traumatic brain injury. Researchers used TMS to drive an electrical current deep into the brain of healthy patients. They found that these patients performed better on memory tests.

Currently, TMS is approved for patients with hard-to-treat cases of depression.

Before people rush to try TMS to get better grades or remember their appointments more often, there is much more development that needs to happen before TMS is able to be used therapeutically, according to senior researcher Joel Voss.

In the study, researchers did MRI scans on 16 healthy adults to identify a network of cells connected to the hippocampus, the region of the brain most responsible for memory.

"We can only stimulate the superficial part," Voss said. "And so we find, for each individual, part of their memory network that's close to the surface that we actually can stimulate. So we stimulate it and we change, remarkably, the function of the whole network."

They tested memory by using an associative memory test in which participants had to remember some associations between faces and words. Then, the participants had 20 minutes of TMS every day for five consecutive days.  Less than 24 hours after the last TMS session, participants took the memory tests again.

They found that participants required at least three sessions of TMS to see the improved memory effects.

Researchers ruled out a placebo effect on TMS by conducting a fake TMS with no actual brain stimulation; participants' test performances did not improve.

"We have a lot to learn, in terms of safety and effectiveness," Voss said. "We don't even know if (in someone with a brain disorder) this would have benefits, or possibly make things worse."

TMS has few negative side effects, typically short headaches and scalp discomfort. However, it is expensive. A session costs approximately $300. 

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