Have the memory of a twentysomething at 60 or 70 years of age.
That was the result obtained by a team of researchers that stimulated the brain of a group of volunteers with electrical impulses, achieving an improvement of functional (temporal) memory.
The people who participated in the experiment carried out at the University of Boston (USA) were adults over 60 and 70 years old and for about 50 minutes they recovered the memory capacity of someone 40 years younger.
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This study seeks to complete more extensive research on the use of brain stimulation to help people in daily life or in the treatment of diseases such as Alzheimer's.
What is functional memory?
Functional memory or working memory is the capacity of the mind to save temporary information.
A person needs that memory to hold a phone number while someone dictates it.
Problem solving, mathematical calculations and decision making also involve functional or working memory.
Robert Reinhart, an assistant professor at Boston University and one of the researchers in this study, says that this memory "is essentially where the conscience lives."
The working memory is different to long-term memory, that allows someone to remember their first day at school, the day of their wedding, their childhood pet, etc …
But people are losing functional memory naturally with age.
Can it be stimulated?
In the study, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, 42 people over 20 years of age and 42 others older than 60 or 70 years participated.
Everyone played to find the differences between two images shown one after the other.
Young adults were faster and more accurate without any type of brain stimulation, while the performance of older adults improved with brain stimulation.
"We can recover the highest capacity of functional memory that you had when you were much younger, "Reinhart explained.
"This is important because the world population is aging rapidly, and the elderly are struggling with many real-world activities that are highly dependent on their memories."
These included recognizing human faces, remembering taking their medications and making financial decisions.
How does the stimulation work?
The researchers focused on waves in two regions of the brain involved in functional memory, the temporal and the prefrontal.
"The brain is like the conductor of an orchestra and uses low frequency rhythms (brain waves) to communicate information, "says Reinhart.
The study showed that as we get olders the brain waves are out of sync, like the musicians who do not coordinate.
The team at Boston University began by recording the brain waves of people with an electroencephalogram.
Then they used electrical stimulation, specifically high-definition transcranial alternating current, to strengthen and resynchronize the brain waves.
Does it really work?
Researchers and other scientists want to see repeated experiments with larger groups of participants to be certain of the results.
The other question is whether the memory improvement recorded in this study would make a significant difference in the daily life of people.
It is not known how long this type of stimulus lasts, since the study only evaluated people for 50 minutes.
To be useful in everyday life you would need a long-term benefit or a way to make the technology portable.
Would it apply in Alzheimer's?
The research was conducted only in healthy people, so it is impossible to draw conclusions about diseases such as Alzheimer's.
The researchers wait that someday brain stimulation plays a role in the treatment of a variety of brain disorders, from dementia to autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and epilepsy.
The Alzheimer's Society welcomed the report: "Modifying and correcting brain circuits with technology is an interesting new research pathway for dementia."
What do the experts think?
Dorothy Bishop, a professor of developmental neuropsychology at the University of Oxford, says that "it would be premature to extrapolate the findings" to people with clinically significant memory problems.
"There are no signs that the beneficial effects of stimulation persist beyond the experimental session"he said.
The researcher said that much more research would have to be done before concluding that this method has a clinical application.
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