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Shocking brain can improve memory, problem solving

By Barry He | China Daily Global | Updated: 2022-09-30 09:27

A study published in Nature Neuroscience this month has prompted excitement in the brain science realm.

Volunteers who had their brains electrically stimulated in specific areas found their memory and problem-solving abilities increased for at least a month.

The electrical shocks were minuscule and painless, and could lead to future treatments for memory disorders and even provide students with an advantage in future exams.

Volunteers involved in the research project at the University of Boston performed better in both memorizing words and in long-term working memory-based problems. It was one of the first studies to demonstrate how stimulating specific isolated parts of the brain could lead to new treatment options for brain diseases.

Participants in the trial wore a cap attached to electrodes. Electrical currents were charged through the cap, altering brainwaves in targeted regions. According to the participants, the electrical shocks felt similar to a tingle or light itch.

Twenty minutes of stimulation a day was enough to show improvement in word memorization, which was confirmed in memory tests in which participants were asked to recall the words a month later.

Electrical charges work by altering the rhythm of brainwaves in certain areas. Researchers believe four doses of the experimental treatment reinforced modified pathways, leading to lingering long-lasting improvements as the brain reset itself.

The phenomenon that allows this to take place is called neuroplasticity, the ability for neurons to form new connections and create altered behaviors. The process of sending electrical charges to the brain can be calibrated to provide differing effects and abilities. Working memory, for example, is where problem-solving and decision-making information is processed. It is for present use, for example, for taking notes down for a class.

To boost working memory, low frequency stimulation of the cortex is required, which is the area at the front of the brain responsible for high-level decision making.

Long-term memory is stimulated slightly differently. Everything from your bank card details to your school memories are stored there, and high-frequency electrical charges to the parietal cortex are required to boost it. This is an area at the back of the brain, polar opposites to the prefrontal cortex where working memory is found.

By scanning the brain while it undergoes different tasks, the areas where different tasks are completed have been fairly well understood for several decades. However, being able to directly alter and boost these processes is new territory.

Memory issues and forgetfulness are a common sign of ageing, and it is hoped that developments in this radical line of treatment could treat symptoms of dementia.

Whether electrical charges could also help those with conditions such as schizophrenia and obsessive compulsive disorder is also being investigated.

While for now these procedures are only possible in research laboratories, the appetite for improving brain function will inevitably supersede the medical realm.

The so-called brain training industries are worth millions of dollars, with everything from crosswords to memory exercises luring players in to improve their cerebral function. If proven successful and safe to apply in the medical field, it may be difficult to deny the wide scope of applications that this area of research could promise.

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