Precision electrical pulses in the brain could improve cognition and reverse some of the memory decline that comes with aging, according to a new study detailed by LiveScience.
The research was published in the journal Nature on Monday, by Boston University neuroscientist Robert Reinhart and his doctoral student John Nguyen. They say their findings could help combat cognitive decline in both healthy adults and those with Alzheimer’s and other conditions.
“These findings are important because they not only give us new insights into the brain basis for age-related working-memory decline, but they also show us that the negative age-related changes are not unchangeable,” said Reinhart.
The research focused on one important area of cognition, called working memory, which allows information to be held in the brain for a short time while performing tasks. It’s important for a wide range of cognitive tasks, and research has suggested that it’s an important factor in overall intelligence. Working memory has also been shown to decline with aging, and older adults consistently do not perform as well as their younger counterparts on tasks that rely on working memory.
In younger people, the prefrontal and temporal regions of the brain work together in a highly synchronized fashion, which researchers believe may allow for a more efficient exchange of information. In older adults, activity in the two regions is not synchronized as closely.
The researchers studied 42 people while they performed working memory tasks, and their brains were monitored with an electroencephalogram. The task involved finding the differences in details between two images quickly shown on a screen.
One group consisted of adults between the ages of 20 and 29, with the other group between 60 and 76. As expected, the older adults did not perform as well on the tasks, showing lower speed and accuracy.
The older group was then given 25 minutes of non-invasive brain stimulation with gentle pulses of electricity, precisely aimed at improving synchronization between the two regions of the brain.
When the tasks were performed again, the stimulation closed the gap in accuracy between the older and younger groups, with improvement lasting at least 50 minutes through the rest of the experiment. Prior research on brain stimulation suggests improvement could last for hours.
The stimulation also improved performance for younger subjects who had done poorly on the tasks.
According to Reinhart:
“I think it’s possible to kind of turbocharge even normal, healthy cognitive functioning, including in young people.”