Scientists say they have developed a device that shocks the brain when it risks forgetting new information, something that could potentially help combat Alzheimer’s – although not all are convinced.
Known as deep-brain stimulation (DBS) or transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), the process involves applying electric shocks to the lateral temporal cortex in the brain, which was found to help the brain retain memories in the short and long term.
“Our results suggest that such systems may provide a therapeutic approach for treating memory dysfunction,” the team, led by the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in their paper published yesterday in Nature Communications.
The idea is that the little jolts of electricity kick your neurons into action, helping them retain memories. In the study, the team said they were able to increase memory performance by up to 15 percent on certain tasks.
There were 25 epilepsy patients in the research, who were asked to memorize 12 common words that appeared briefly on a screen for 1.6 seconds. They then performed a “distractor task”, which consists of solving a series of arithmetic problems.
First, this was done without any brain stimulation. Then, they applied up to 3.5 milliamps of current to specific regions of the brain and found that the stimulation increased the probability of recalling the words.
“I've been studying the electrophysiology of memory processes for many years, and it seemed to me that [we should] use the electrical signals of the brain that predict good memory to help teach us how to stimulate the brain,” Michael Kahana, the study’s senior author, told Scientific American.
This method has been tried and tested before, sometimes being called a “brain pacemaker”. Other studies, however, have had mixed results. This latest study tried to stimulate regions of the brain based on their activity to improve success.
However, it is not without criticism. Speaking to the Science Media Center, Thom Baguley, a Professor of Experimental Psychology at Nottingham Trent University, who was not involved with the research, said there were some “major limitations and some concerns,” with the study.
“Any implications for Alzheimer’s are extremely speculative at this stage,” he said. “ Aside from the difficulties of translating research from laboratory to clinical settings, TMS is rather an unpleasant, noisy thing to administer – so it would not be suitable for many (late stage) patients.”
“As this study didn’t include people who have dementia we don’t know if this technique could overcome the damage caused by disease,” added Dr Doug Brown from the Alzheimer’s Society.
“Due to brain cell loss in the memory centres of the brain in Alzheimer’s, it’s possible that there would not be enough healthy brain cells left to stimulate by the time the condition has been diagnosed.”