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Memory Can Be Improved Through Magnetic Brain Stimulation

The ability to form episodic memories of past events and experiences is diminished with age, certain dementias, and brain injury, yet these memories are essential in defining who we are. But according to a study published on September 28th in the open access journal PLOS Biology by Mircea van der Plas and Simon Hanslmayr from the University of Glasgow and colleagues, low frequency repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) delivered over the left prefrontal cortex of the brain can improve memory performance by reducing the power of low frequency brain waves that are produced during the memory formation process.

In light of current knowledge of the brain and the effects of repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS), the researchers hypothesized that they could improve episodic memory while also generating targets for future memory-related therapies.

The researchers began by reviewing previous data collected from 40 college students who had been asked to memorize lists of words. While attempting to memorize the words, half of the students received slow repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) over the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and the other half received rTMS over a control region of the brain. According to the findings of a new study, researchers collected data from 24 college students who each performed a similar memory task under both rTMS conditions.

Both datasets were analyzed, and it was discovered that memory performance was improved for words that were memorized while the left prefrontal cortex was being stimulated in both cases. Researchers discovered that slow repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) applied to the prefrontal region of the brain resulted in a reduction in the power of low-frequency (beta) waves in the parietal region of the brain, which is known to be involved in both attention and perception.

In light of the fact that slow rTMS inhibits brain activity and that the prefrontal cortex inhibits posterior regions of the brain, van der Plas and his co-authors hypothesize that the slow rTMS disinhibited activity in the parietal region, which resulted in enhanced encoding of the words being memorized and thus better recall of the words learned.

"Our electrophysiological findings suggest that frontal stimulation affects a broader network and improves memory formation by inhibiting parietal areas," van der Plas writes. "These are complex, but intriguing effects that will require additional research to better understand their neural underpinnings."

"We were quite surprised to see these effects in the first study, which was intended to investigate a completely different question," Hanslmayr continues. Because of this, we needed to replicate the effects in a second experiment to determine whether or not they were real, which it appears to be."

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