Study Suggests Well-Timed Electrical Brain Stimulation Boosts Memory

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Brain implants designed to improve brain functionality aren’t new, but they’re all firmly within the experimental stages at present. Just last month, for example, a very small study suggested that surgically implanted electrodes slowed down the progression of Alzheimer's in some people.

Now, a new Nature Communications study, led by the University of Pennsylvania, has suggested that a similar type of brain implant can also boost memory. Unlike the aforementioned study, this new research venture recruited those suffering from epilepsy.

As first spotted by The New York Times, this trial of 25 patients concluded that intermittent electrical stimulation to a specific part of the brain can improve a patient’s word recall by 15 percent, a fairly modest but nevertheless significant amount. Before we explore what the study actually involved, though, it’s important to manage our expectations somewhat.

Evidence linking electrical stimulation of the brain to improved memory is somewhat mixed. Even a quick look at the scientific literature over the past few years throws up a variety of contrary results of such techniques: back in 2016, a study in Neuron suggested electrical stimulation did not improve a person’s memory, whereas a 2017 Current Biology study found the opposite.

Trials tend to be very small-scale, and it could be argued that, in many cases, enough data yet to suggest whether or not the positive effects are genuine or simply a placebo effect. Normally, only people with certain neurological conditions are used in these trials, and often, other non-human primates are used, rather than people – a useful, but not ideal, proxy.

That most recent study, which used three Alzheimer’s patients, fell on the positive side of things, but several neuroscientists criticized it for being having a small sample size. This latest study, featuring 25 people, is an improvement, but it’s still small.

At this point, far more data is needed, but each study is welcome. So what did this new one find, exactly?

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