According to a new study from Northwestern University, targeted electric shocks to the surface of the brain can improve memory in adults more than 24 hours later. All you need is an MRI machine to identify the right spot on your cranium and a Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) device to shock the ever loving shit out of it.
Okay, so it’s not exactly electric shocks per se. If you’ll remember back to your high school physics classes, electricity and magnetism are two sides of the same coin. Electric currents cause magnetic fields and magnetic fields cause electric currents. In TMS, a small but powerful magnetic field is focused into the surface of your brain – completely bypassing your skull – causing electric currents to spread through your neurons.
The technique is not new; researchers have been using it for decades in studies to try to affect memory and behavior. Off the top of my head, I know at least one program that uses it in combination with executive function training sessions to try to help addicts get ahold of their fix needs.
This study was a little more elegant than most, however, as the researchers first used an MRI scan to identify the exact location they wanted to target on each participant. Even then, they couldn’t get directly to the spot they were after.
The primary region of the brain associated with memory is the hippocampus, which lies deep within the brain; much too deep to get to directly with TMS. So instead, the scientists targeted structures closer to the surface with a ton of wires leading directly to it. In short, they were aiming for a domino that would then knock over a bunch of other ones and reach the domino they really wanted to fall.
Each person received the TMS stimulation for 20 minutes each day for five days. After each round, they were shown a series of faces and given a word to remember that went along with each. They were then asked to recall that word when shown the face.
After a week’s worth of sessions, most every patient started performing better on the memory task. It’s the first time TMS has been shown to have a long-term positive effect on memory.
In addition, the MRI showed the stimulation caused the brain regions to become more synchronized with each other and the hippocampus. The greater the improvement in the synchronicity or connectivity, the better the performance on the memory test.
“The more certain brain regions worked together because of the stimulation, the more people were able to learn face-word pairings,” said Joel Voss, assistant professor of medical social sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
Using TMS to stimulate memory has multiple advantages, noted first author Jane Wang, a postdoctoral fellow in Voss’s lab at Feinberg.
“No medication could be as specific as TMS for these memory networks,” Wang said. “There are a lot of different targets and it’s not easy to come up with any one receptor that’s involved in memory.”
Who knows, maybe someday your iPhone 20b will come with a built-in magnetic coil so you can get a little memory boost to start your day. Then again, magnetic fields that strong probably wouldn’t work so well with handheld electronic devices.
Thank goodness for cloud storage backup.
The study, “Targeted enhancement of cortical-hippocampal brain networks and associative memory,” was published in Science by Voss along with other Northwestern authors Lynn M. Rogers, Evan Z. Gross, Anthony J. Ryals, Mehmet E. Dokucu, Kelly L. Brandstatt and Molly S. Hermiller.