Do you ever go upstairs to look for something and then realize that you have no idea why you went upstairs at all? Or how about cooking rice, then leaving the room and only returning if you smell the burn?
I notice that as I get older, I do this kind of thing more often. I do not worry. After all, about 40 percent of people over 60 years of age have some form of age-related memory loss. It is not thought that it is a condition or illness in itself, but just natural wear and tear on the pieces of the brain that help us remember. But it’s annoying.
So I was intrigued to read the results of a recent study that found that if you zap the brains of someone in the 60s with short power surges, it can give him, at least for a short time, someone’s memory capacity in their 20s.
Buzzing: Christopher Lloyd as a crazy scientist Doc zaps his brain cells in cult film Back To The Future
Can electric shocks really improve memory?
The specific type of memory that the researchers tested is called working memory.
This is the ability to keep various information in your head at the same time, such as an address that you have just read, while also trying to delete a phone number.
Working memory allows us to process information and be creative, but it begins to decline in our early 30s, because parts of our brains are gradually becoming out of sync and being disconnected from each other.
By the time we reach the age of 60, these links may have deteriorated to such an extent that it is starting to make life difficult.
It is this unfortunate aspect of aging that Rob Reinhart, an associate professor of psychology and brain sciences at Boston University in the US, decided to investigate. He wanted to see if he could improve the working memory of older volunteers by tickling their brains a little.
The device he used is a cap, which contains electrodes that emit a series of small electrical shocks – each less than a thousandth of an ampere and barely enough to power an incandescent bulb – on the scalp.
This should not be confused with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), still used in some psychiatric hospitals, involving currents strong enough to cause an epileptic seizure, which “shocks” the brain circuit to dramatically shift .
A Cambridge University study found that middle-aged people who were obese showed signs of brain shrinking in scans (stock image)
For Prof. Reinhart’s most recent research, he asked a group of people in their twenties and a group in their sixties and seventies to perform a series of tasks. They were invited to look at one image and then look at another image after a short break. They had to say whether the second image was the same or different from the original. They did this several times.
It is a classic way to evaluate the working memory, because you must preserve the first image and carefully compare it with the second image in front of you – and as expected, the 1920s group did better than the older group.
Five easier ways to get a sharper mind
A Cambridge University study found that middle-aged people who were obese showed signs of brain shrinking in scans compared to leaner people. Being overweight or obese has raised the “brain age” by about ten years.
EAT OILY FISH
A Mediterranean diet can stimulate the brain. Fatty fish, rich in omega-3 fats and extra virgin olive oil, seem to be particularly useful. A study of 6,000 elderly people found that those closest to a Med-style diet had the lowest risk of developing memory problems.
When I do the 5: 2, I feel much sharper. Studies have shown that giving animals to an intermittent fasting diet increases the levels in the brain of a hormone called BDNF (Brain Derived Neutrophic Factor), which keeps the brain in shape.
Exercise increases blood flow to the brain and promotes brain cell growth. Dancing is especially effective because it combines a physical workout with a mental one.
Long-term stress is especially harmful to the hippocampus, an important area in the brain for memory. Yoga, mindfulness or spending more time outdoors will also help.
The older adults were then given 25 minutes of mild electrical stimulation, administered via the cap, before being asked to do another round of memory tests.
Amazingly there were no more differences. The older group had increased their performance to the level of the young group.
Dr. Reinhart said: “Delivering these shocks is not just a minor adjustment. The people we have tested remember things better, perceive better, learn faster. It is extraordinary. “This type of brain zapping is generally considered safe, with the most serious side effect being a tickle or itch under the electrodes.
I felt that I had drunk a very strong coffee
I was intrigued but not entirely surprised by this study, because a few years ago I had my brain tickled in the same way by Charlotte Stagg, professor of human neurophysiology at the University of Oxford. She told me that the reason it works probably is because the small electrical currents that are delivered to the skull strengthen the connections in the brain.
“The brain is an incredible electric organ – a multitude of cables,” she said. “We learn things by making connections between those cables stronger. What the small electrical shocks do is help shape those connections. “
To demonstrate this, Charlotte asked me to perform a series of reaction time tests where a button was pressed when a certain pattern of light appeared on a screen. She applied the electrodes to my skull, tied them up and turned on the juice.
I felt that I had returned a very strong black coffee. I was more alert; zoom. After a rest I took the tests again. The improvement was impressive. Before my brain was stimulated, it took me an average of 650 milliseconds to respond to the light test. Now I fell to 550, which made me “slightly better than average.”
The focus of Charlotte and her team has investigated whether stimulating the brain in this way can help people recover strength in their hands after a stroke.
So will we soon tie electrodes and give our brains a little blast in the morning to brighten us up? Before you put your fingers in a bowl, scientists need to do more research. Charlotte says: “At the moment we just don’t know what the best way is to give the stimulation or what the long-term consequences of long-term use are.”