Stimulating a particular region in the brain via non-invasive delivery of electrical current using magnetic pulses, called Tran-cranial Magnetic Stimulation, improves memory, according to a new study by Northwestern University.
The discovery opens a new field of possibilities for treating memory impairments caused by conditions such as stroke, early-stage Alzheimer's disease, traumatic brain injury, cardiac arrest and the memory problems that occur in healthy ageing.
"We show for the first time that you can specifically change memory functions of the brain in adults without surgery or drugs, which have not proven effective," said senior author Joel Voss, assistant professor of medical social sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
"This noninvasive stimulation improves the ability to learn new things. It has tremendous potential for treating memory disorders," said Voss.
The study also is the first to demonstrate that remembering events requires a collection of many brain regions to work in concert with a key memory structure called the hippocampus similar to a symphony orchestra.
The approach also has potential for treating mental disorders such as schizophrenia in which these brain regions and the hippocampus are out of sync with each other, affecting memory and cognition.
The study is the first to show TMS improves memory long after treatment. It shows that TMS can be used to improve memory for events at least 24 hours after the stimulation.
It isn't possible to directly stimulate the hippocampus with TMS because it's too deep in the brain for the magnetic fields to penetrate, researchers said.
Using an MRI scan, Voss and colleagues identified a superficial brain region a mere centimeter from the surface of the skull with high connectivity to the hippocampus. He wanted to see if directing the stimulation to this spot would in turn stimulate the hippocampus.
"I was astonished to see that it worked so specifically," Voss said.
When TMS was used to stimulate this spot, regions in the brain involved with the hippocampus became more synchronized with each other, as indicated by data taken while subjects were inside an MRI machine, which records the blood flow in the brain as an indirect measure of neuronal activity.
The more those regions worked together due to the stimulation, the better people were able to learn new information.
Scientists recruited 16 healthy adults ages 21 to 40. Each had a detailed anatomical image taken of his or her brain as well as 10 minutes of recording brain activity while lying quietly inside an MRI scanner.
The study was published in the journal Science.

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