Brain stimulation technology significantly improved memory recall in a small clinical study of epilepsy patients—suggesting that the technology could someday help treat Alzheimer's, dementia, brain injury, or other conditions that impair memory.
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For the study, a research team led by scientists from the University of Pennsylvania and Thomas Jefferson University tested their new recall-boosting technology on 25 epilepsy patients.
The patients already had electrodes wired into various parts of their brain to evaluate whether their seizures could be surgically treated. The researchers took advantage of this set-up to closely monitor the patients' brain activity, and over time, they trained a computer to recognize the patterns of activity associated with memory lapses. The researchers then programmed a stimulation system to send a small electric shock into the brain when it sensed that a memory lapse was about to occur.
The researchers found that, the stimulation system, when directed at the brain's left temporal cortex, improved average performance on a word-recall test by about 15%. Michael Kahana, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the senior author on the study, said, "When we stimulated other parts of the brain, memory was, by and large, impaired."
The research is part of a more than $70 million Department of Defense research project to develop technologies to treat traumatic brain injuries in military personnel and veterans.
What's the future of 'memory booster' technology?
The researchers and some neurologists said that the findings, while still in the early stages, show promise for treating brain injuries, dementia, and other conditions that affect memory.
Edward Chang, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of California, San Francisco, said that the technology could go beyond treating dementia and other brain injuries. "Very similar approaches might be relevant for other applications, such as treating symptoms of depression or anxiety," he said.
However, experts cautioned that the implant requires multiple electrodes placed in the brain. As such, according to Bradley Voytek—an assistant professor of cognitive and data science at the University of California, San Diego—the implant would be appropriate only in severe cases. "Ideally we can find other, less invasive ways to switch the brain from these lower to higher functioning states," he said. "I don't know what those would be, but eventually we're going to have to work out the ethical and public policy questions raised by this technology."
Michael Sperling, the director of the Comprehensive Epilepsy Center at Thomas Jefferson University, and an author on the study, acknowledged that more research needed to be done on the effectiveness of the implant, since the study only looked at patients with epilepsy. "We still really lack any experiments in people with other conditions to know for certain whether (the treatment) would prove effective or not," he said.
Sperling is optimistic, however, suggesting that this implant might become available in the near future. According to NPR, DOD funded scientists already are working to develop a version of the brain stimulation system that could be implanted in a person's brain.
"There's a good chance that something like this will come available," Sperling said. "I would hope within the next half dozen years, or so" (Carey, New York Times, 2/6; Hamilton, "Shots," NPR, 2/6).
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Over 5.3 million Americans currently suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and related memory disorders and the Alzheimer’s Association predicts this number to triple to 13.8 million by 2050.
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