Stimulating the brain with targeted electrical pulses at precise times can help improve memory, according to a study published last month in Current Biology.
For the study, University of Pennsylvania researchers collaborated with institutions across the United States—including Emory University, the University of Washington, the Mayo Clinic, and the University of California-San Francisco—to analyze memory-performance data from 150 epilepsy patients who had electrodes implanted intracranially. The researchers specifically examined whether the timing of electrical stimulation—administered during either a low- or high-functioning brain state—had an effect on how the patients performed on word-memorization tests.
According to the study, participants scored a little higher than usual on word-memorization tests when their brains received an electrical stimulation during a low-functioning brain state. Michael Kahana, who co-led the research team, said participants on average experienced a 12 to 13 percent increase in memory when stimulation occurred as they were experiencing a moment of low cognitive performance. "We found that jostling the system when it's in a low-functioning state can jump it to a high-functioning one," he said.
In comparison, when stimulation occurred during a state of high cognitive performance, participants on average experienced a 15 to 20 percent drop in memory performance, Kahana said.
Overall, Kahana said the researchers found that "when memory was predicted to be poor, brain stimulation enhanced memory, and when it was predicted to be good, brain stimulation impaired memory."
The researchers cautioned that the study's findings, which focused on epilepsy patients, might not apply to people with other conditions, such as dementia or Alzheimer's disease.
Experts say findings provide a 'breakthrough' on cognitive stimulations
Experts said the findings provide scientists with key information on cognitive stimulation.
Bradley Voytek—an assistant professor of cognitive science and neuroscience at the University of California-San Diego, who was not involved in study—said the findings "showed why stimulation works in some conditions, and why it doesn't in others," which provides scientists with a "blueprint for moving forward."
Justin Sanchez—director of the biotechnologies office at the federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which has spent about $77 million to advance research on cognitive stimulation—called the findings a "breakthrough" for scientists searching for treatments that boost brain function (Carey, New York Times, 4/20; Hamilton, "Shots," NPR, 4/20).
Five strategies to build a successful memory disorders program
Over 5.3 million Americans currently suffer from Alzheimer's disease and related memory disorders and the number is rising. On top of increased demand, reimbursement processes fail to meet the complex needs of these patients who require multifaceted care.
These pressures are forcing providers to rethink how they organize and deliver their memory disorders services to meet this growing population's demands while providing care that is both high-quality and financially sustainable. Here are the five key strategies that a program of any scope and size can implement to provide cost-efficient Alzheimer's and dementia care.