A recent study conducted by Dr. Ramon Diaz-Arrastia and his team at the University of Pennsylvania has shown promising results in the treatment of memory deficits in patients with traumatic brain injuries (TBIs). By delivering a precisely timed pulse of electricity to a specific area of the brain, the researchers were able to improve recall by 20% and reduce memory deficits by 50%. If these findings are replicated in larger studies, it could greatly benefit young people who have suffered serious TBIs and struggle with memory problems that hinder their ability to participate fully in society.
However, this treatment is not for the faint of heart, as it requires patients to undergo surgery to implant electrodes in their brains. Additionally, scientists are still refining the delivery system for the electrical pulses.
TBIs are a major cause of disability, with over 1.5 million people in the US experiencing them each year. While the majority of TBIs are classified as mild, resulting in only temporary memory loss, moderate to severe TBIs often lead to permanent deficits in memory and thinking. More than 5 million people in the US are currently living with a TBI-related disability, and many of them are young men who have been involved in serious car or motorcycle accidents. These individuals may recover physically but struggle mentally, preventing them from returning to work.
To address this issue, Dr. Diaz-Arrastia collaborated with Professor Michael Kahana, a psychologist at Penn, to develop a system that could enhance memory performance. By studying the electrical signals associated with successful and unsuccessful memory retrieval and creating a computer model to predict memory lapses, the team was able to devise a system that delivers precisely timed electrical pulses to the lateral temporal cortex, a brain area involved in memory encoding.
In a small group of individuals without a history of TBI, this system was successful in improving memory performance. Encouraged by these results, the team then tested the approach in individuals with a history of moderate to severe TBIs. Participants in the study were shown a list of words and asked to recall them, while electrical pulses were administered at moments when memory failure was predicted. Through this process, the researchers were able to effectively move the brain from a poor state to a better state, enhancing memory performance.
The research has primarily been funded by the military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency as part of their efforts to develop technologies to help military personnel and veterans with memory problems resulting from brain injuries. The system developed by Dr. Diaz-Arrastia and Professor Kahana has attracted commercial interest, with plans to bring the technology to market. In addition, other companies are also exploring brain stimulation as a means to improve memory and cognition in individuals with brain injuries or diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.
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Rohit Malhotra is a medical expert and health journalist who offers evidence-based advice on fitness, nutrition, and mental well-being. His articles aim to help readers lead healthier lives.