In the middle of the market, with your list forgotten at home, how you wish you could remember what was on it. Or in the middle of a party, you struggle to recall that new person’s name. And where did you put the passport—that safe place so you’d find it quickly for a spur-of-the-moment trip?
Many people past 60 have to admit: their working memory—the part that kicks into gear when we make decisions, remember things and figure out where our passport is—isn’t what it used to be. That’s because areas of the brain that used to work together well become disconnected, uncoordinated, scientists say.
Now, Boston researchers think they may have found a way to zap the brain back into shape and restore memory. Rob Reinhart, PhD, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences there, and his doctoral researcher John Nguyen, delivered very weak electrical stimulation via scalp electrodes to pep up the uncoordinated brain areas. In the process, working memory improved.
In one experiment, they asked a group of 42 adults ages 60 to 76 and another group of 42 younger adults in their 20s to do a series of memory tasks. Participants viewed an image and, after a brief pause, identified whether a second image was different than the first, for instance.
At the start, the younger participants were much better at the tasks. However, after 25 minutes of stimulation, the older adults’ performance matched that of the younger participants.
Even better? The researchers say the memory improvement lasted at least until their experiment session ended—50 minutes—and perhaps longer. The scientists think the stimulation works by restoring the ability of the brain areas to synchronize with each other, among other mechanisms.
Of course you’re ready to sign up—but it’s not yet ready for prime time. But it’s research definitely worth following. Experts not involved in the study say yes, it does show promise.
Until this science fiction-like remedy becomes fact, how to improve memory? The experts at Harvard Medical School suggest eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, not smoking and keeping blood pressure, blood sugar and blood cholesterol all under control. Don’t forget to exercise your mental muscle the low-voltage way for now—crossword puzzles, reading, learning new words.