That’s right folks, the future is now! Okay, okay, so I know I sound a little sketchy here, but just let me explain. I’ve recently been doing a little research on memory and sleep and I happened to stumble upon this brand spankin’ new article published in Current Biology. I’m sure you don’t want to read through the literature though, so let’s explore this thing together.
We Can Strengthen Our Memory Using Electrical Currents
If you think you may have misread that, let me assure you, you didn’t. “This sounds like some hocus pocus, Eric. Are you fo reals?” you may even start to clamor, but let me explain. First, we need a little bio-backstory. That squishy, pale pink image you have of your brain is actually an elaborately constructed organ made of about 86 billion neurons. These interconnected cells transmit information through an electrical gradient, producing action potentials that generate nerve impulses. The pulses running across your noggin can then be measured in varying waves as you move through different versions of consciousness.
When you sleep tonight, your brain will be emitting different electrical frequency patterns than when you’re currently engaged in reading this article. These oscillating brainwave patterns are what’re known as sleep spindles. People like my man Dr. Flavio Frohlich and my wo-man Dr. Caroline Lustenberger, a couple of UNC neuroscientists, actually study these things for a living. I can only imagine how many sleep spindles these two have looked at through the years. Really though, I can only imagine.
What Does Electricity Have to do With Memory?
The more Dr. Frohlich and his colleagues looked at these patterns, the more he wondered if they were the cause, or merely a byproduct, of the brain’s memory-building processes while sleeping. So what did he do? Like any good neuroscientist, he got a team together and developed a feedback-controlled method of transcranial current stimulation he dubbed transcranial alternating current stimulation, or tACS for short. Much like its kissing cousin transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS) uses non-evasive electrodes that emit pulses to specific areas of your brain at specific times.
Picture tACS as a few decently-sized electrodes that you place on your scalp. The electrode wires protrude from your head and run down your body to a little micro-controlled box. That small box sends the electrical pulses up to your brain during the night to stimulate the oscillating areas appropriately without affecting the regions near it. Pretty cool, right? Yes, pretty cool, but what did he find out?
Memory Can be Enhanced Using tACS
Each person in the study performed a couple common memory tasks each night (a word pairing and a motor sequence tapping tasks). They would also receive either tACS or a mock stimulation as a placebo, and an alternate treatment the next night. Each morning the team of researchers would have the participants repeat their memory tests. While there was no improvement in the word pairing tasks, there was a significant improvement in motor sequence tasks.
This shows us there’s a strong link between the electrical patterns of sleep spindles and memory consolidation. Not only does it give us some killer new information about how our memory processes during sleep, but it gives us some amazing implications for treatments of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Schizophrenia. It looks like that’s the next direction for the team at UNC. They will be looking at applying their form of alternating stimulation to people with known deficits in memory.
Wrapping it up
So the future of memory may be upon us now, but what does that make the future future look like? Will we all be hooking up electrodes to our skulls before we doze off into that sweet land of sleep spindle dreams? As of right now, who knows? What we do know is the potential upside to tACS seems pretty limitless.