A Zap to the Brain to Help you Remember

Jesse Rissman, co-author of study
(Stuart Wolpert/UCLA Newsroom)

A small electrical zap to the brain could help you retrieve a forgotten memory 
By Stuart Wolpert
Posted on the UCLA Newsroom on May 30, 2019

A study by UCLA psychologists provides strong evidence that a certain region of the brain plays a critical role in memory recall. The research, published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, also shows for the first time that using an electrical current to stimulate that region, the left rostrolateral prefrontal cortex, improves people’s ability to retrieve memories.

“We found dramatically improved memory performance when we increased the excitability of this region,” said Jesse Rissman, a UCLA assistant professor of psychology, and of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences, the study’s senior author.

The left rostrolateral prefrontal cortex is important for high-level thought, including monitoring and integrating information processed in other areas of the brain, Rissman said. This area is located behind the left side of the forehead, between the eyebrow and the hairline.

“We think this brain area is particularly important in accessing knowledge that you formed in the past and in making decisions about it,” said Rissman, who also is a member of the UCLA Brain Research Institute.

The psychologists conducted experiments with three groups of people whose average age was 20. Each group contained 13 women and 11 men.

Participants were shown a series of 80 words on a computer screen. For each word, participants were instructed to either imagine either themselves or another person interacting with the word, depending on whether the words “self” or “other” also appeared on the screen. (For example, the combination of “gold” and “other” might prompt them to imagine a friend with a gold necklace.)

The following day, the participants returned to the laboratory for three tests — one of their memory, one of their reasoning ability and one of their visual perception. Each participant wore a device that sent a weak electrical current through an electrode on the scalp to decrease or increase the excitability of neurons in the left rostrolateral prefrontal cortex. Increasing their excitability makes neurons more likely to fire, which enhances the connections between neurons, Rissman said.

(The technique, called transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS, gives most people a warm, mild tingling sensation for the first few minutes, said the study’s lead author, Andrew Westphal, who conducted the study as a UCLA doctoral student and is now a postdoctoral scholar in neurology at UC San Francisco.)

For the first half of the hour-long study, all participants received “sham” stimulation — meaning that the device was turned on just briefly, to give the sensation that something was happening, but then turned off so that no electrical stimulation was applied. This allowed the researchers to measure how well each participant performed the tasks under normal conditions. For the next 30 minutes, one group of participants received an electrical current that increased their neurons’ excitability, the second group received current that suppressed neuron activity and the third group received only the sham stimulation. The researchers analyzed which group had the best recall of the words they saw the previous day.

First, the scientists noted that there were no differences among the three groups during the first half of the study — when no brain stimulation was used — so any differences in the second half of the experiment could be attributed to the stimulation, Westphal said.

Memory scores for the group whose neurons received excitatory stimulation during the second half of the study were 15.4 percentage points higher than their scores when they received the sham stimulation.

Scores for those who received fake stimulation during both sessions increased by only 2.6 percentage points from the first to the second session — a statistically insignificant change that was likely was due to their increased familiarity with the task, according to the paper. And scores for the group whose neuron activity was temporarily suppressed increased by just five percentage points, which the authors also wrote was not statistically significant.

“Our previous neuroimaging studies showed the left rostrolateral prefrontal cortex is highly engaged during memory retrieval,” Rissman said. “Now the fact that people do better on this memory task when we excite this region with electrical stimulation provides causal evidence that it contributes to the act of memory retrieval.

“We didn’t expect the application of weak electrical brain stimulation would magically make their memories perfect, but the fact that their performance increased as much as it did is surprising and it’s an encouraging sign that this method could potentially be used to boost people’s memories.”

The study’s reasoning task asked participants to decide in seven seconds whether certain pairs of words were analogies. Half of the trials featured word pairs that were true analogies, such as “‘moat’ is to ‘castle’ as ‘firewall’ is to ‘computer.’” (In both pairs, the first word protects the second from invasion.) The other half had word pairs that were related but not actually analogous.

Researchers found no significant differences in performance among the three groups.

For the final task, focusing on perception, subjects were asked to select which of four words has the most straight lines in its printed form. (One example: Among the words “symbol,” “museum,” “painter” and “energy,” the word “museum” has the most straight lines.) Again, the researchers found no significant differences among the three groups — which Rissman said was expected.

“We expected to find improvement in memory, and we did,” Rissman said. “We also predicted the reasoning task might improve with the increased excitability, and it did not. We didn’t think this brain region would be important for the perception task.”

Why do people forget names and other words? Sometimes it’s because they don’t pay attention when they first hear or see it, so no memory is even formed. In those cases, the electrical stimulation wouldn’t help. But in cases where a memory does form but is difficult to retrieve, the stimulation could help access it.

“The stimulation is helping people to access memories that they might otherwise have reported as forgotten,” Westphal said.

Although tDCS devices are commercially available, Rissman advises against anyone trying it outside of supervised research.

“The science is still in an early stage,” he said. “If you do this at home, you could stimulate your brain in a way that is unsafe, with too much current or for too long.”

Rissman said other areas of the brain also play important roles in retrieving memories. Their future research will aim to better understand the contributions of each region, as well as the effects of brain stimulation on other kinds of memory tasks.

Hammer Museum to help revitalize Westwood with artisanal pop-ups

Arts ReStore-logoThe UCLA Hammer Museum on Monday announced Arts ReSTORE LA: Westwood — an initiative aimed at trying to help revitalize Westwood Village by tapping into Los Angeles’ creative community by having local artisans and craftspeople open pop-up shops this November.
Fourteen projects, which include a maker of environmentally friendly skateboards, a variety of furniture, clothing and accessories designers and a letterpress print shop, have been selected to fill some of the empty storefronts throughout the struggling retail area.
In addition to the shopping options, there will be performances at Open Forum, which is an event space organized by the Hammer Student Association in collaboration with a host of other organizations, and dancers and choreographers from the UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance.
Funding for the project comes from a $100,000 grant the Hammer won in May. The Goldhirsh Foundation awarded the grant as part of its LA2050 project, which asked organizations across the city to find solutions to the region’s toughest challenges. Hammer Director Ann Philbin saw the potential in the Goldhirsch Foundation’s LA2050 grant to make a meaningful impact in Westwood Village’s retail landscape and to help inspire local property owners to imagine a creative future for the Village. Arts ReSTORE LA: Westwood won the Arts & Cultural Vitality grant. The Hammer was one of 10 winners chosen from 279 entrants.
In the Hammer’s proposal, officials wrote that they would use the museum’s incredible network of local talent and expertise in arts and culture to curate the pop-up village. Westwood property owners have donated the space in the vacant spaces as part of the project, which will run from Nov. 1-24. A series of performances curated by UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance will be part of Arts ReSTORE LA: Westwood.
“I think people want unique. They want authentic. They want original,” said Andrew Thomas, executive director of the Westwood Village Improvement Association. “Chains have a place in our restaurant and retail environment, but I think what makes Westwood special is the number of mom-and-pop retailers that we have in our district. The Hammer is really one of the gems of our district. To have their backing on a program that I think would generate a lot of buzz and attention in our district is tremendous.”
Arts ReSTORE LA: Westwood hours will be Thursdays–Saturdays 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sundays 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Video: 1948 mechanical computer at UCLA

This 1948 short film by Popular Science magazine screened in movie theaters before Paramount Pictures features. It shows a mechanical differential analyzer in use by UCLA engineering students and researchers.
“This amazing mechanical brain quickly solves mathematical problems that would require months by ordinary computing methods. The brain is becoming an invaluable aid in our aircraft capital — speeding engineering research and reducing time spent on flight tests. It is also available for solution of other industrial design problems.”