Rethinking Healthcare

Jolts to the brain enhance memory

Jolts to the brain enhance memory

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For a handful of volunteers, a mild pulse to the brain during a taxi driving game helped them find a faster, more direct route to a virtual destination on their second try.

Researchers zapped the brains of epilepsy patients with mild pulses of electrical current, which actually boosted their learning abilities.

In particular, the jolts enhanced their ability to learn their way around a virtual city. Perhaps deep brain stimulation could help stave off memory loss in people with early stages of Alzheimer’s. ScienceNOW reports.

These 6 patients were already in the hospital awaiting surgery for their seizures, so the researchers – led by Itzhak Fried at the University of California, Los Angeles – just took advantage of the platinum electrodes that had already been implanted in their brains. (These are used to locate the source of their seizures before operating to remove it.)

  1. The patients were given a laptop and asked to play a taxi driver game – using a joystick to navigate around a virtual city, picking up and dropping off passengers at various places.
  2. At the same time, the researchers stimulated their brains when they found their way to certain destinations for the first time.
  3. When the patients later made another taxi run, they took a shorter route to those destinations the second time around.

The team found that when they stimulated the entorhinal cortex – a component of the memory circuitry – while patients first learned their way to a destination, they took a more direct route to that destination and got there faster on the second try, compared with destinations they'd learned with the electrodes switched off.

Fried’s interested in investigating entorhinal stimulation as a treatment for Alzheimer's disease or other memory disorders.

Tens of thousands of patients with Parkinson's disease and other movement disorders have benefitted from deep brain stimulation – but we don’t know if it’ll work for memory problems yet.

The work was published in New England Journal of Medicine last week. From ScienceNOW.

Image by Oracle20 via Flickr

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Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure