Electrically stimulating a portion of the brain that coordinates the way the mind works can enhance memory and improve learning, according to a study that may lead to a new way to treat cognitive disorders.

The research published recently in the journal Science pinpointed for the first time how various regions of the brain work with the hippocampus, where memories are formed, organized and stored, said Joel Voss, a senior author. The elaborate process can be thrown off kilter after a stroke or trauma, and may be disorganized in people with schizophrenia or Alzheimer’s disease. It can also degenerate with age.

The approach, called transcranial magnetic stimulation, involves sending a small amount of energy into the brain to stimulate nerve cells. To do this, an electromagnetic coil is placed against a person’s head. In the study of 16 healthy volunteers, five days of stimulation for 20 minutes improved their performance on a memory test, while no benefit was seen after they got a sham stimulation.

“The novelty here is that we have shown for the first time that it’s possible for us to non-invasively change the function of the brain’s memory network and in doing so, change people’s memory abilities,” said Voss, assistant professor of medical social sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. “The goal is to manipulate this memory network in people with brain and memory deficits that could benefit from stimulation.”

The procedure is already used to treat severe depression and to help plan brain surgery.

Voss emphasized that the stimulation, which was done with the help of MRI scan, isn’t intended to improve memorization or other skills in healthy people. Most people have fine memorization abilities and the study showed stimulating their brains allowed researchers to “push them a bit,” he said. Those who have true deficits and disorganized networks in the brain may benefit the most, he said.

“If you have a memory disorder, it’s devastating for patients and their families,” Voss said in a telephone interview. “It robs people of their memories and their lives. We’re learning how we can change and manipulate the brain with the ultimate goal of trying to fix those disorders.”

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