Electric Stimulation Improves the Working Memory of Older People

Electric stimulation improves memory
During memory tasks, brain activity associated with working memory lights up in the brain of a 20-year-old (left), but remains dormant in the brain of a person in their 70s (middle). After electrostimulation (right), the 70-year-old’s brain activity mimics the 20-year-old’s. [Credit: Reinhart lab/Boston University]

The performance of our working memory deteriorates as we age. As we get older, it becomes increasingly difficult to form new memories and hold on to them. Now researchers at Boston University have shown that it is possible to improve memory in older folks. They used external electric stimulation to give 70-year-olds the memory abilities of 20-year-olds.

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In a groundbreaking study published April 2019 in Nature Neuroscience, Rob Reinhart, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Boston University, and BU doctoral researcher John Nguyen demonstrated that electrostimulation can improve the working memory of people in their 70s so that their performance on memory tasks is indistinguishable from that of 20-year-olds, reports Boston University.

For their study, the researchers recruited two groups of individuals: one group consisted of people in their 20s, and the people in the other group were in their 60s and 70s.

The researchers asked both groups to perform a series of memory tasks that required them to view an image, and then, after a brief pause, to identify whether a second image was slightly different from the original.

At baseline, the young adults were much more accurate at this; they significantly outperformed the older group. However, when the older adults were given 25 minutes of mild stimulation through scalp electrodes and personalized to their individual brain circuits, the difference between the two groups vanished. What’s more encouraging is that the memory boost lasted at least to the end of the 50-minute time window after stimulation – the point at which the experiment ended.

Rob Reinhart with the new device
Rob Reinhart (Photo by Cydney Scott)

The researchers explained this technique by looking at two mechanisms that allow working memory to function properly: coupling and synchronization.

“Coupling occurs when different types of brain rhythms coordinate with one another, and it helps us process and store working memories. Slow, low-frequency rhythms—theta rhythms—dance in the front of your brain, acting like the conductors of an orchestra. They reach back to faster, high-frequency rhythms called gamma rhythms, which are generated in the region of the brain that processes the world around us,” explained Boston University.

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“Meanwhile, synchronization—when theta rhythms from different areas of the brain synchronize with one another—allows separate brain areas to communicate with one another. This process serves as the glue for a memory, combining individual sensory details to create one coherent recollection. As we age, our theta rhythms become less synchronized and the fabric of our memories starts to fray.”

“We showed that the poor performers who were much younger, in their 20s, could also benefit from the same exact kind of stimulation,” said Reinhart. “We could boost their working memory even though they weren’t in their 60s or 70s.”

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Sam Draper () is Online Editor at WT | Wearable Technologies specialized in the field of sports and fitness but also passionated about any new lifestyle gadget on the market. Sam can be contacted at press(at)wearable-technologies.com.