Study indicates neuromodulation may improve memory in older adults

By Jules Murtha | Medically reviewed by Amanda Zeglis, DO, MBA
Published September 28, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • Leaders in translational medicine are developing technologies that can help older adults maintain memory function.

  • Research shows that highly focalized neuromodulation can be used to sustainably exploit the plasticity of the brain as it ages, improving memory function.

  • Doctors can remind older adult patients to keep their memory in shape by learning new skills, making to-do lists and plans, spending time with loved ones, and following routines.

Forgetfulness is a normal part of getting older. But even slight loss of memory function can be concerning—and translational medicine is looking to technology for solutions.

Research shows neuromodulation may play an important role in enhancing memory function in older adults. Clinicians can also encourage patients to learn a handful of techniques that could strengthen memory as they age.

Neuromodulation helps memory function

Memory impairments can pose real challenges to those who live with them.

According to a 2022 study published by Nature Neuroscience, researchers are committed to finding technologies that can protect—and even enhance—memory in older adults.[]

The study, which looked at the effects of neuromodulation on memory function, collected data from 150 participants in the greater Boston area aged 65 and older.

Throughout testing, participants performed daily, immediate free-recall tasks involving five lists of 20 unrelated high-frequency words. The words spanned 4–12 letters each. Proctors would read a list of these words, after which the participants would recall as many as possible in under 2 minutes.

The implementation of neuromodulation occurred over the course of three separate experiments.

In the first experiment, 60 participants were randomly divided into three groups: sham, DLPFC gamma, and IPL theta. They received 4 days of 20-minute 8 × 1 transcranial Alternating Current Stimulation (tACS) according to their assigned group. Those in the gamma group received frequency 8 × 1 tACS at 60 Hz, while those in theta had frequency 8 × 1 tACS at 4 Hz.

The results showed selective improvements in both working and long-term memory. Through dissociable spatio spectral entrainment of brain rhythms, participants experienced improvements for up to at least 1 month post-neuromodulation.

The second experiment confirmed that no additional benefits were associated with changes in frequency between the two regions—therefore, memory improvement hinged more on the combination of anatomical location and rhythmic frequency. Results also showed that participants with poorer cognitive function had even better improvements.

The third experiment showed that the rate of improvement patients experienced within the first 4 days of treatment “predicted” the strength of their memory at 1 month post-intervention.

The study authors came to a hopeful conclusion about the use of neuromodulation for memory improvement.

"Together, these findings suggest that memory function can be selectively and sustainably improved in older adults through modulation of functionally specific brain rhythms."

Grover, et al.

Taking care of memory

As researchers continue to test neuromodulation’s potential to enhance memory, there are several actions your older adult patients can take to help keep their memory strong.

According to an article published by the National Institute on Aging, forgetfulness is a normal part of aging that can be doctored with a few simple techniques.[]

Learning a new skill, organizing and following a daily routine, and using memory tools (like calendars and notes) to plan tasks for the day are known to sharpen the mental skills of older adults. They may also benefit from establishing a go-to location for items like purses, glasses, keys, and wallets.

Exercising, eating well, sleeping 7-8 hours each night, and spending time with loved ones also go a long way in maintaining one’s memory.

These tips are mainly for older adult patients who experience signs of forgetfulness such as missing an occasional monthly payment or forgetting a word here and there when speaking.

Patients who have more serious memory issues may get lost in familiar places, or struggle to follow directions. If a patient exhibits these symptoms, it’s time for them to talk to you to explore testing and possible causes.

What this means for you

Researchers found that employing 4 days of tACS protocols can selectively and sustainably enhance the auditory-verbal working and long-term memory in adults aged between 65–88. The rate at which memory improved over the first 4 days indicated the positive changes participants would see in a month’s time. As neuromodulation research continues to advance, remind patients to care for their memory by exercising, following a routine, and spending time with friends and family, among other tasks.

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