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Magnetic Stimulation Improves Memory

Scientists at Northwestern University in Chicago recruited 16 healthy adults between the ages of 21 to 40 to be part of a memory experiment.  Using magnetic pulses called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), researchers sought out to improve memory functions of the brain without using drugs or invasive surgery. If successful, this new approach has potential for treating mental disorders such as schizophrenia in which these brain regions and the hippocampus are out of sync with each other, affecting memory and cognition.

All 16 volunteers had an anatomical image taken of their brain as well as had 10 minutes of brain activity recorded while inside an MRI machine. This allowed the researchers to detect each person’s unique brain network, which connects to the hippocampus. The hippocampus is located too deep inside the brain to be stimulated by using magnetic fields, so by using an MRI scan, the research team identified a superficial brain region a mere centimeter from the surface of the skull with high connectivity to the hippocampus. They sought out to see if directing the stimulation to this spot would in turn stimulate the hippocampus and it did.

All individuals underwent a memory test that consisted of random word and face associations that they were asked to memorize. Once their aptitude to perform this task was established, they received brain stimulation five days a week for 20 minutes per day. Throughout the week they also received additional MRIs along with new random memory tests. Subjects were then tested 24 hours after their final stimulation.

The next week the same experiment was conducted, but this time with fake placebo stimulation. Half of the participants received this placebo test first, while the other half received it second. Neither group was aware of which test was real and which was using the placebo. However, both groups’ memory performance improved with only three days of magnetic simulation.
Thomas Insel, Director of National Institute of Mental Health, discusses an interesting dilemma that this new memory manipulation process could introduce. How ethical is manipulating memory and brain circuits?

“On the one hand, manipulating memory can mean improving recall for people with dementia or relieving the symptoms of PTSD or depression,” Insel explains in his NIMH Blog. “Indeed, if mental disorders can now be addressed as disorders of brain circuits, then treatments for mental disorders can be framed as interventions to tune circuits.”

“On the other hand, manipulating memory with neurotechnologies raises thorny ethical issues,” he said.

While technology is not quite at the level of reading thoughts or controlling someone’s memories, could it eventually evolve into that if we are not careful?

“As we develop better tools for human neuroscience, it’s not too early to ask about unintended consequences,” said Insel.



About Jill Sauser, The Kim Foundation Project Coordinator

Jill graduated with a degree in Journalism and a minor in Speech Communication from the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 2009. During her time at UNO, she completed a two year PR practicum program where she worked with numerous nonprofit clients including the MS Society, The Archdiocese of Omaha, The Omaha Food Bank and YWCA. Jill joined The Kim Foundation as Project Coordinator in April 2014.