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A Genuine Jolt to the Memory

• February 20, 2011 • 9:00 AM

Little bits of electricity have been shown to help people remember names, a finding that might have implications for restoring memories and making new ones.

It’s a universal moment of dread. Someone with a familiar face approaches and panic ensues; you can’t remember his or her name. New research suggests that this embarrassing incapacity may be helped by a shock — of electricity, that is.

Scientists from Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania discovered that a low jolt of electrical current to the brain improved name recall in young adults by 11 per cent, according to a study published in Neuropsychologia.

A subsequent experiment on older adults replicated the findings, and that study is being prepared for publication.

While wearing electrodes is not a practical solution to poor name recall, the research has far wider implications. “These findings hold promise because they point to possible therapeutic treatments for memory rehabilitation following a stroke or other neurological insult,” senior author and Temple psychologist Ingrid Olson was quoted by her university.

Not to mention that any breakthrough in memory enhancement is significant because memory is the pivotal instrument of cognition, Olson said. Everything we learn, from walking to cooking to learning the rules of mathematics, involves different sets of neurons storing information in the brain. “But the fundamental rules that govern how that memory is created are probably the same.”

Proper names are among the hardest things to recall, she said, because they’re arbitrarily assigned and provide no clues about the person. In fact, the Temple researcher said her name apparently triggers visions of a “blonde Viking wearing a helmet” — so she’s often called Olga. She’s sympathetic to that mistake because she once lost a boyfriend in college whom she kept referring to as John. His name was Dave.

In the study, 15 young adults looking at a computer monitor were shown 165 photographs of famous people — from former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to actor Anthony Hopkins — on three separate occasions. The study subjects, wearing scalp caps that transmitted a low dose of electricity through electrodes soaked in saline solution, were given seven seconds to identify the image under three circumstances: when the left anterior lobe was electrically stimulated, when the right anterior lobe was stimulated and when “sham” or no stimulation was administered.

There was no improvement with the sham stimulation or with the left lobe, but accuracy improved from 27 percent to 38 percent with stimulation of the right anterior temporal lobe. Thirteen of the 15 participants showed increased naming performance. (Most of them particularly struggled with Tony Blair and old-time vamp Mae West.)

The research seems to confirm previous studies that suggest that the right anterior temporal lobe’s function is related to name recall; when that section of the brain is removed to alleviate seizures in patients with epilepsy, a common side effect is an inability to recall names, according to Olson.

The technology of applying low dosage electricity to the brain is called transcranial direct current stimulation (tCDS), which is being studied as a treatment for everything from stroke to attention deficit disorder to depression.

While it may bring to mind visions of Jack Nicholson having his brain fried by electroshock therapy in the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, it’s as different from electroshock as a chair vibrator is to a bolt of lightning. Electroshock uses 1 ampere of electricity and tCDS uses 1.5 milliamperes, which one academic likened to a tenth of the amount of current flowing through the ear buds of an iPod. It’s a painless process that produces only a slight tingling at the onset.

The small surge of electricity apparently stimulates neurons into firing more readily and accessing information imbedded in memory, Olson said. It’s possible, then, that learning can be expedited by applying electricity while the brain is being exposed to new information. “There are very few people using this technology, and right now it’s a lot of guesswork,” Olson said. “But it could be really great.”

And any new discoveries involving memory are especially exciting in the scientific community.

“It’s a very big field of research in psychology and neuroscience because most of us think that understanding memory is the Holy Grail of what we do.”

 

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Jill Porter
Jill Porter retired this year after 34 years at the Philadelphia Daily News, 30 of them writing an award-winning metro column. She worked at two other daily newspapers before becoming a reporter at the Philadelphia tabloid and is now doing freelance writing.

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