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People with a brain injury or dementia often struggle to remember simple things like names or places. Now scientists have shown it may be possible to improve this sort of memory using tiny pulses of electricity. NPR's Jon Hamilton reports.
JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: Michael Kahana of the University of Pennsylvania says a typical person's ability to remember things tends to vary a lot.
MICHAEL KAHANA: Some days we're at the top of our game, and some days we're just off of our game.
HAMILTON: That's also true for people whose memory has been impaired by a brain injury or disease. So Kahana wondered whether there might be some way to help these people perform at their peak level all the time.
KAHANA: If they could just move their game up so that every day was their best day, then it would really significantly change their quality of life.
HAMILTON: Kahana and a team of researchers thought they might be able to do this by stimulating memory circuits in the brain, so they tried the approach with a group of patients who had severe epilepsy. These people had electrodes temporarily implanted in their brains as part of their treatment, and that gave the scientists a way to deliver tiny pulses of electricity to areas deep in the brain. Kahana says, unfortunately stimulation made things worse.
KAHANA: Not only were we not able to enhance memory, but we actually reliably and consistently impaired memory in those patients.
HAMILTON: So the team began studying more epilepsy patients to figure out why. This time, though, they used the electrodes to monitor brain activity as the volunteers did memory tasks. And Kahana says they were able to identify electrical patterns that predicted whether a person was going to remember something or not.
KAHANA: What we were doing was essentially a kind of mind reading trick.
HAMILTON: Then the team tried another stimulation experiment, and this time, Kahana says, they made a breakthrough.
KAHANA: When memory was predicted to be poor, brain stimulation enhanced memory. And when it was predicted to be good, brain stimulation impaired memories.
HAMILTON: In other words, on a bad memory day, stimulation helped. On a good day, it hurt. Kahana says when stimulation was delivered to the right place at the right time, it could improve memory performance as much as 50 percent.
The research, which appears in the journal Current Biology, was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. Several years ago, DARPA launched an ambitious effort to help the troops who were returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with memory problems caused by traumatic brain injuries. Justin Sanchez, who is in charge of the program, says Kahana's work shows DARPA's investment is paying off.
JUSTIN SANCHEZ: When I first heard about these results, my mind was absolutely blown. It's like the impossible happened.
HAMILTON: Sanchez says a medical device based on this research could eventually do for an injured brain what a prosthetic limb does for an injured body.
SANCHEZ: Over 270,000 military personnel are living with traumatic brain injuries, and the options for them are very few. Now we could offer them some hope for the future.
HAMILTON: Brain stimulation still has to prove itself as a memory aid. But Michael Kahana of the University of Pennsylvania says if the approach pans out, it could help people with a wide range of memory problems.
KAHANA: Traumatic brain injury is certainly high on our list, but we're also thinking very much about Alzheimer's disease and the other dementias that affect memory.
HAMILTON: Alzheimer's alone affects more than 5 million Americans. Jon Hamilton, NPR News.
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