UCLA researchers found that electrically stimulating a certain part of the brain may improve an individual’s ability to create and recall memories.
In a study published in October, researchers from UCLA, along with those from the California Institute of Technology, electrically stimulated a specific brain region of epilepsy patients while the patients learned new faces. The researchers found the patients could later recall those faces more accurately than could patients who did not receive electrical stimulation.
Nanthia Suthana, an assistant professor in neurosurgery and one of the authors of the study, said the study is the first to show that this kind of electrical stimulation can improve memory in humans.
“It’s also the first time this type of (electrical) burst has been delivered deep in the brain,” Suthana said.
Memory performance increased in eight of nine patients when researchers electrically stimulated a part of the right half of the brain that is involved in learning faces and recognizing facial expressions.
Subjects who received electrical stimulation in the corresponding left half of the brain or in the wrong areas of the right half did not show increased memory performance, said Emily Mankin, a postdoctoral scholar in neuroscience and one of the lead researchers of the study.
Mankin said the researchers used small electrodes to deliver carefully tuned electrical pulses to specific brain areas, unlike traditional electrical stimulation studies that use large electrodes which deliver broad pulses to wide areas of the brain.
Suthana said she thinks this therapy succeeded in improving memory because the researchers delivered the electrical stimulation to a specific region of the brain. She said she thinks previous studies that used electrical stimulation to improve memory were inconclusive because the electrical stimulation in those studies was accidentally directed to the wrong areas of the brain.
“It’s starting to become very clear that if the location of the electrodes is off, it can have the opposite or no effect at all,” Suthana said. “If you’re off by a few millimeters, it can make a huge difference.”
Suthana said she thinks another reason their technique improved memory was because the electrical stimulation mimicked the natural electric rhythm of the brain and enhanced connections between brain cells.
Diego De Alba, a third-year neuroscience student who works in the Portera-Cailliau Laboratory, said he thinks the technique may be used to selectively activate and study specific brain areas. In the lab, he studies the learning deficits of mice that have neurological disorders.
“I think the technique could be used to better understand the brain, (since) direct areas of the brain can be influenced,” he said.
Mankin said she hopes doctors can one day use this therapy to treat patients with chronic memory impairment, such as those with Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia. The lab’s future research will fine-tune the therapy to improve memory for not only faces but also numbers and words, she added.
“What happens in the brain if you give it a little boost is a topic of future study,” Mankin said. “Now, we have another technique to understand what goes on inside the brain.”