A Brain Zap May Boost That Fuzzy Memory

A Brain Zap May Boost That Fuzzy Memory

A Brain Zap May Boost That Fuzzy Memory


A new study finds that zapping the brain might boost that memory. After receiving stimulation in a certain part of the brain, study participants were 15.4% better at recalling memories, a group of researchers reported on May 6 in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

“In an episodic memory, you have contextual detail,” said senior author Jesse Rissman, an assistant professor of psychology and of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Rissman and his team recruited 72 people for two consecutive days of testing. On the first day, the participants were shown 80 different words and asked to remember them in context. For example, if one of the words was “cake,” the participants were asked to imagine themselves or someone else interacting with the cake. (Remembering the word “cake” isn’t an episodic memory, but remembering that you ate cake yesterday on the balcony is.)

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The next day, the participants took tests to measure their memory, reasoning and perception; in these evaluations, they were asked to recall if they saw certain words the day before and to organize those words into categories, among other tasks.

Then, the participants were split into three groups: The first received additional brain zaps to increase the activity of a specific part of the prefrontal cortex known to be important in episodic memory recollection; the second group received a “backward” current (done by switching the polarities of the electrodes), which previous research has suggested either decreases activity of the brain cells or doesn’t do anything; the third group continued to receive sham stimulations.

Though the participants didn’t show any improvement in reasoning or perception after receiving the zaps, the people who received the actual currents had a 15.4% higher score on their memory tests than they did before being zapped. The researchers didn’t see any significant improvements in the groups receiving the backward current or the sham stimulations.

But a limitation of the study is that, though the zaps were aimed at a very specific region of the brain, the researchers couldn’t be sure the pulses weren’t also affecting other regions.

Rissman said this is the first time that a study has tested what happens if an electrical stimulation is applied as a person tries to recall a memory. But otherwise, zapping the brain to improve memory isn’t new.

“While these initial results are very encouraging, we want to do more experiments to understand how consistent this benefit is,” he said. But researchers also want “to have a better handle on what types of memories are most amenable” to this type of brain zapping.