New research from UCLA shows that stimulating key area of the brain can improve the memory. Perhaps we’ll soon be free from those annoying afternoons, scrambling about looking for the dog’s leash or the car keys.

Published in this week’s edition of the New England Journal of Medicine, the research could produce a new method for boosting memory in patients with early Alzheimer’s disease, and senior author Dr. Itzhak Fried, a professor of neurosurgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA said :

“The entorhinal cortex is the golden gate to the brain’s memory mainframe … Every visual and sensory experience that we eventually commit to memory funnels through that doorway to the hippocampus. Our brain cells must send signals through this hub in order to form memories that we can later consciously recall.”

Fried and his team looked at seven epilepsy patients who already had electrodes implanted in their brains to help locate the origin of their seizures. The scientists studied the electrodes to record neuron activity as new memories were being created.

They then used a video game featuring a taxi cab, virtual passengers and a cyber-city, to test if deep-brain stimulation of the entorhinal cortex or the hippocampus altered recall. Patients played the role of cab drivers who picked up passengers and traveled across town to deliver them to one of six requested shops. Fried continued that :

“When we stimulated the nerve fibers in the patients’ entorhinal cortex during learning, they later recognized landmarks and navigated the routes more quickly … They even learned to take shortcuts, reflecting improved spatial memory … Critically, it was the stimulation at the gateway into the hippocampus … and not the hippocampus itself … that proved effective.”

Stimulation appears to only be necessary during the learning phase. Thus continuous stimulation to boost memory is not necessary, only when someone is trying to learn important information. In theory, this could lead researchers to develop neuro-prosthetic devices that can activate during certain stages of information processing or daily tasks.

Six million Americans and 30 million people worldwide are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease each year. The progressive disorder is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States and the fifth leading cause of death for those aged 65 and older.

“Losing our ability to remember recent events and form new memories is one of the most dreaded afflictions of the human condition … Our preliminary results provide evidence supporting a possible mechanism for enhancing memory, particularly as people age or suffer from early dementia. At the same time, we studied a small sample of patients, so our results should be interpreted with caution.”

Whilst this is one possible application, accelerated learning or super memory might also be possible. Fried hopes that future studies will look into whether deep-brain stimulation can improve other types of recall, such as verbal and autobiographical memories. None of the subjects reported adverse effects from the stimulation.

Fried’s co-authors included first author Nanthia Suthana, Dr. Zulfi Haneef, Dr. John Stern, Roy Mukamel, Eric Behnke and Barbara Knowlton, all of UCLA. The research was supported by grants from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and the Dana Foundation.

Written by Rupert Shepherd